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Birria in Brooklyn: Bushwick’s Nenes Taqueria expands

Over the past two years, Bushwick local Andrés Tonatiuh Galindo Maria has started building something of a small-business empire in Brooklyn. The foundation? Birria tacos. The special ingredient? “That’s easy, it’s love,” Galindo Maria laughs.

Galindo Maria is the founder and owner, along with his mom, of hit eatery Nenes Taqueria, which has grown from its original location at the back of an Irving Avenue deli to two large brick-and-mortars in the borough and a stand at Barclays Center. Galindo Maria has done that in just two years, during a global pandemic.

It’s a rainy Tuesday afternoon in Bushwick when we meet, but there is not a single seat in Nenes Starr Street location and standing room is tight. That’s typical for the outpost, which on most days has a crowd outside and double-parked cars waiting on to-go orders.

The down-to-earth Galindo Maria, 29, exudes both humility and assurance, perhaps the signature of someone who grew up in Bushwick working in his family’s restaurant. Opening a restaurant at the height of the pandemic was a risk, Galindo Maria admits. He witnessed thousands of eateries across the city closing their doors due to what became for many an untenable situation. But, he said, when he had the idea for Nenes he didn’t think about failure, he knuckled down.

“I like to call it luck, but also I took the opportunities…I learned, like once you get an opportunity, take it because you won’t never get that opportunity again,” Galindo Maria said. “I think that helped me a lot, because I never had doubts about should I do it or should I not. I went right at it.”

But Galindo Maria’s vision wasn’t without a concrete base. He has been around food service his entire life. Galindo Maria, who was born in a small village in Puebla in Mexico, moved to Bushwick with his mother and sister when he was 5 years old.

“We moved up here,” he said, pointing to a building on the block where we’re sitting, the same block where he opened Nenes Taqueria. “I went to school right there, that was my middle school, public school. Went to high school in Bushwick as well. And I live in front of Knickerbocker Park, on Starr Street, so this is my home basically.”

When the family arrived in New York, Galindo Maria’s mother started selling empanadas with his uncle out of a street cart. She opened her own cart and in the summers would go down to Coney Island in the mornings to vend there, and Galindo Maria would be right by her side.

Eventually, she was able to open a brick-and-mortar location on Suydam Street. “That’s where we grew up,” Galindo Maria said.

“Every weekend, we used to wash dishes, deliver food, you know, help out on Saturdays and Sundays… [I was] 7 years old. I used to wake up at seven, eight in the morning, she used to drag me along. She used to bring the laundry cart to do her shopping so I was there to help. I used to hate it, but it helped me out … a lot. So yeah, I grew up in the restaurant industry, you can say,” he laughed.

During those years, Galindo Maria fell in love with food and when he finished high school he got a job at Michelin-starred Ai Fiori. “I was a runner. I used to stare at the cooks and be like, wow, I want to do this.” He enrolled in Manhattan’s Institute of Culinary Education and went on to get a highly sought-after internship at Jean-Georges, which turned into a job, one he stayed in for almost five years. In February 2020, Galindo Maria decided to leave and start the next chapter of his career: an international education.

“My goal before opening the shops was to travel the world, work in different restaurants, you know. As a cook, something you learned was you never stop learning. There is always a new recipe and technique, a new ingredient that you can learn, and so that was my philosophy: travel the world and work in kitchens.”

His first stop was going back to his roots. A friend had reached out and asked if he would help open a new restaurant in Mexico City, so he got a plane. Little did he know the city would be completely locked down due to Covid-19 just two weeks later. After being quarantined alone in his apartment for long enough, he rang his mom telling her he wanted to return to New York City.

“She told me, ‘You know what, go back to our hometown.’ It’s in Puebla, my grandmother still lives there, I have a lot of family out there and it was like why not?…It’s a ranch, it’s a farm, it’s in the middle of nowhere. So that’s where my story started.”

Galindo Maria spent six months on his family’s farm, tending to animals and the gardens with his grandmother and other relatives. The routine, he said, was waking up, feeding chickens, cleaning, watering plants (including a lot of avocado trees), and helping make mole and adobo with his aunt and grandmother to sell.

“I took it for granted at that time, it’s amazing,” Galindo Maria said. “They do seasonal things, like if there’s corn, then we eat corn every day. The squash blossoms were, oh my god, they were amazing. We barely ate meat and when we did it was something from the farm.”

Galindo Maria decided to come back to New York City in September 2020, and when he did, the seed to open his own place had been planted. “We were blessed that the government helped us out. Out there they were struggling, they were grinding out there. I saw that and I was, wow, these people are hustling, so I decided to come back here, and I was motivated, to be honest,” he said. “A lot of people asked me, why would you open during the pandemic, when a lot of restaurants are closing down. I never thought about it like that. I was like why not? Let’s take a risk.”

The secrete to success? Birria.

He knew he wanted to use authentic Mexican ingredients and he settled on the concept of “straight up birria.” “At that time, birria wasn’t trending and the only place that was getting known for it was Birria-Landia and there was none in Brooklyn. So, I was like I think we could do something, something better.”

The definition of birria varies across Mexico depending on the region you’re in, but in New York City, where it’s taken off recently after seeing huge popularity on the West Coast, it’s likely going to be beef or goat marinated in adobo, chilis, and spices and cooked slowly in a stew. It’s then served as tacos, typically made with tortillas dipped in the red-hued sauce, and in other dishes.

That pretty much fits the bill at Nenes, but for the record Galindo Maria said, laughing, that his birria is better than his Queens rivals. “We were called ‘the king of Birria in Brooklyn,’ so we take that with honor.”

Just one month after landing in the city, he found a small kitchen in the back of a bodega. It was more like an apartment kitchen than a commercial one, with just an electric stove, electric fryer, and small lowboy. In it, he opened the first Nenes Taqueria that also operated as a deli. “I asked my mom for a loan and she and I opened a small shop on Irving Avenue…it was literally only two people that fit there, it was super, super small.”

Starr Street has long been a home base for the family, who sells Birria.Starr Street has long been a home base for the family.Photo by Anna Bradley-Smith

The name Nenes came from the nicknames Galindo Maria’s stepdad gave him and his sister growing up, he said. “It got stuck to us. She’s Nena and I’m Nene, that’s how we grew up.” (The name of the restaurant is spelled without an apostrophe, he added.)

Straight away, locals loved it and after only a couple of weeks it attracted a review in Grub Street. Cue the queues: People lined up along Irving Avenue, six feet apart, masked up, ready to brave the start of a New York winter and sit outside to taste the flavors Galindo Maria was cooking. They ordered the birria-dipped and cheese-crusted corn tacos, or Galindo Maria’s signature ramen noodles, swimming in rich fatty birria broth with chunks of flavorful stewed meat. Both dishes were making waves in Covid pods and Instagram posts.

Soon, Galindo Maria said, the lines got so long he had to do something about it. His stepdad was operating a restaurant on Starr Street that had struggled since the outbreak of the pandemic. He offered to sell the restaurant to Galindo Maria, who jumped at the chance. He said he literally moved that day, putting up a poster in the window of the Irving Avenue location and directing them a few blocks over. And the lines followed. That was December 2020.

“I grew up in this neighborhood…It’s pretty awesome to own my own business in my own neighborhood. You know, seeing the changes. I love Bushwick to be honest. It’s amazing…this is home. I mean, I still love my roots in Mexico,” he adds.

The same month Galindo Maria opened the Starr Street location, he got a direct message on Instagram from someone asking him if he wanted to open a Nenes stall in Barclays Center. Again without hesitation, he said yes and quickly got to work with his mom.

“I think I teared up when I first saw my logo, I was proud of it. My mother was tearing up, saying thank you to them, being grateful. Like she’s really religious. It was an emotional moment. Because … who would have thought I would open a stand in Barclays,” Galindo Maria said.

Then near the end of 2022, as the queues kept growing in Bushwick and the crowds gathered at Barclays, another opportunity arose for Galindo Maria: a fully kitted-out restaurant for sale in Park Slope and at cheap rate.

“It’s like every puzzle piece came together…unfortunately, the old tenant was in a rush to sell it because he had lost a lot of money during the pandemic. He actually opened in January, February 2020 and by March, the city closed down. So he struggled to reopen a month later.”

It was the fate of so many around the city and country. Independent Restaurant Coalition told Brooklyn Paper’s sister website, Brownstoner, that in the first year of the pandemic alone, more than 100,000 restaurants closed down countrywide.

The federal Restaurant Restaurant Relief Fund was set up to help independent restaurants through the lockdowns and mandated closures, and while it was a lifeline for so many, it was “terribly underfunded by Congress, leaving 177,000 restaurants without the financial support they needed to survive,” Erika Polmar, executive director of IRC said. In its first two days, the $29 billion fund had 186,200 applicants.

It was also much more challenging for neighborhood businesses without long-standing banking relationships to access the funds, Polmar said. And without those relationships, restaurant owners had to navigate the almost 20-page application themselves.

Just around the corner from where Galindo Maria opened Nenes Taqueria, the popular Taqueria La Iguana on Knickerbocker recently closed. Not far from there, another popular Mexican restaurant, Guadalupe Inn, closed its doors in September 2020. Further along Knickerbocker, Taqueria Izucar called it quits after more than a decade. They are just three of the many. And of those still standing, most said it was tenuous.

This story first appeared on Brooklyn Paper‘s sister website,