On the Windsor Terrace/Kensington border, nestled in a tiny drag of shops between Ocean Parkway and McDonald Avenue, lies an unlikely cheese mecca that that has been nourishing the mouths and souls of tristate Mexican immigrants—and a few enlightened gringos—for over 20 years.
All across New York, people from south of the border feast on queso fresco and queso hebra—aka queso Oaxaca, mozzarella’s Mexican cousin—made fresh here each morning by the talented fingers of the Zafra family. The smooth, salty cheese is as good as anything you’ll find in a California cantina or a Mexican cocina, but it’s not the family’s first—or last—contribution to Brooklynites with an appetite for authentic Mexican fare. Queso hebra is like a lovechild born of mozzarella and string cheese—a smooth, mildly flavored ball that you can shred into endless little threads (“hebra,” in fact, translates as “strand” or “thread”). It melts, but doesn’t brown, perfect in quesadillas, where it oozes with a salty tang from between griddled corn tortillas, in a cemita sandwich, where it adds a supple tenderness to the mountain of meat, or showered lavishly atop tlayudas, open-faced flatbreads smothered in refried beans, avocado and fiery shredded meat that are iconic in Oaxaca and, increasingly, Sunset Park.Each unraveling thread reveals a finer layer of snappy, salty satisfaction, which is to say: it’s tempting to eat a whole ball on its own.
Plutarco Zafra, the patriarch of the family business, emigrated from Puebla to New York in 1971 at age 17—just the first of several life-changing leaps. His childhood sweetheart, Eduina, followed a year later, and Plutarco worked at various Mexican restaurants but, in pursuit of a career beyond dishwashing, enrolled in the now-defunct New York Restaurant School and went on to cook upscale cuisine at Le Parker Meridien and the Rainbow Room. But as Latino immigration to New York boomed in the 1980s, Plutarco divined that he could make a good living feeding fellow Mexicans instead of Midtown moguls.
In 1987, he and a partner opened Tortilleria Chinantla in Bushwick, whose beautiful fresh corn tortillas were an easy sell to restaurants and groceries in booming Mexican communities where lackluster prepackaged tortillas were not fooling anyone. The masa-paved path soon led him to cheese. Plutarco realized that where there was an appetite for fresh corn tortillas, there would also be one for fresh queso fresco and queso hebra: “I was delivering tortillas to all these Mexican restaurants. I thought, why not make cheese, too?”
The recipes were new to Plutarco, but not to his wife: Eduina’s family had been making traditional Mexican cheeses for generations, so in 1993 she and Plutarco invited her mother to come to New York to teach him the ancient art. After months of apartment kitchen test batches that surely reminded Plutarco of culinary school drills, he left the tortilleria for a career in queso. Customers ate it up—literally—and over 20 years later, Quesos Mexico, as they named the business, remains the New York source for handmade, exceptionally delicious Mexican cheese.
But Plutarco, now 56 and still blessed with a full head of thick (if graying) hair, is hardly resting on his lactic laurels. He, Eduina and the rest of their four grown children all live within two blocks of the store, and they’re there almost around the clock. Plutarco is in the shop from 3 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, and credits Eduina with keeping him sane. But their kindergarten-age grandson is the new jefe: “He’s the little boss around here,” laughs his mother, Mireya.
Queso fresco is the better seller of their two cheeses: the soft, puck-shaped cheese is crumbled atop tacos across the city and beyond. But insiders obsess over the family’s luscious Oaxacan queso, harder to find but worth the hunt. Most of it winds up at the taquerías and small Mexican grocers lining 5th Avenue in Sunset Park, where shoppers buy it by the ball. Plutarco starts each batch with an enormous, 35-pound block of mozzarella curd, slices it into strips and then massages them back into one ivory-colored blob in an enormous mixing bowl filled with scalding water. Eduina dons three pairs of gloves for this step, but her husband’s been doing it so long he says he no longer feels the burn. “I’m just used to it,” he shrugs. As the curd warms in the water, it takes on the stretchy consistency of taffy, and Plutarco pulls it into a skinny strip three inches wide and several yards long. He tugs with a practiced hand, dropping the stretched section into cold water. It looks like a snake, winding its way from one vessel to the next, with Plutarco charming it in the middle. Eduina shimmies salt across the strand, then Mireya winds the ribbon into perfect five-pound balls. The finished product is not unlike a giant skein of cheesy, salty yarn.
It’s hard work and long, long hours. But when I ask 56-year-old Plutarco if he’ll ever retire, he laughs the idea off: “I’m living the American dream.” And how—this February, after decades wholesaling to Mexican restaurants, the Zafras opened their own: Casa Carrera, on Flushing Avenue in Bushwick, serving traditional Mexican fare and Tex-Mex-style meals. Needless to say, it’s staffed by family, and their Oaxacan queso kisses everything from quesadillas to empanadas. Also on the menu: Eduina’s slow-simmered mole, which Mireya swoons over just in conversation, plus her rich, porky pozole soup. So pour a michelada for the Zafras, and their decades-long work to bring authentic Mexican food to Brookyn. We’ll toast—and scarf tlyaduas—to that.
To buy queso fresco and queso hebra, visit:
1. Quesos Mexicanos
2. Las Conchitas
3. Cholulita Deli
Editor’s note: Quesos Mexicanos has closed.
Like mi madre used to make. Plutarco Zafra cooked at the Rainbow Room before deciding to feed fellow Mexicans instead of Midtown moguls. He now rises at 3:00 each morning to make traditional queso hebra, above, and queso fresco, its delicious crumbly cousin.
No passport needed. After decades wholesaling to Mexican restaurants, the Zafras opened their own: Casa Carrera in Bushwick, where the handmade cheeses kiss everything from quesadillas to empanadas.
Photo credit: Vicky Wasik.