Meet the Chef Behind Two of Williamsburg’s Best Mexican Restaurants

Text by Ximena Natera, Photos by Jordana Bermúdez

When he first immigrated to New York City more than 20 years ago, chef Iván Garcia immediately started cooking familiar dishes to keep his homesickness at bay—and to bring to mind loved ones, including a young son, back in Mexico. With few authentic Mexican ingredients available at nearby markets, Garcia found it nearly impossible to prepare his grandmother’s pozole or traditional mole poblano. It took him years to locate reliable area vendors where he could buy items like dried chiles, huitlacoche (corn fungus) and papalo (a cilantro-like herb).

Zona Rosa

Mexican ingredients are now easier to come by in NYC, which is both a boon for Garcia and a reflection of the community’s cultural and economic expansion in the City. Yet his yearslong treasure hunt was not for nothing—these dishes laid the groundwork for the restaurants Garcia owns: Mesa Coyoacan and Zona Rosa, both in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Garcia is also the subject of the feature film I Carry You with Me (Te Llevo Conmigo), by Oscar nominee Heidi Ewing, which premiered at Sundance in 2020. The movie follows Garcia during his time as an ambitious culinary student in Puebla, Mexico; his hidden relationship with a college teacher (now his life and business partner, Gerardo Zabaleta); and his rise in the culinary world.

(From left) Gerardo Zabaleta and Iván Garcia

On a busy Friday afternoon at Mesa Coyoacan, Garcia and Zabaleta talked to us about their Brooklyn eateries and the decision to share their story for the screen.

I Carry You with Me tells the true story of your relationship. How was it to share it with a large audience?

Iván Garcia: When we met there was so much homophobia [in Mexico] that we lived in hiding, and that was one of the reasons we moved to New York. We wanted to live just a little bit freer.

I was nervous that friends and family, including my son, who was a boy at the time, would see that part of our lives—our love, our attraction. But my mom told me, “Son, I have always felt a lot of love for you. I admire you more for all that Gerardo and you have built.” Through the film, we were able to break down those barriers.

The movie reflects a very isolating experience when you first moved to New York City. Was there a place where you found comfort in those early days?

IG: I was very clear about the dream I had, but suddenly you arrive at a city where you don't know anyone, you don’t speak the language; the weather and the jobs are brutal. Engraved in my memory of that time is the New York Public Library in Manhattan. I couldn’t spend money on phone cards, so I would go to the library to use the internet. It was so exciting, hoping to find an email from Gerardo; it was my refuge.

Chiles en nogada

How do your restaurants fit into the landscape of Mexican food in New York City?

Gerardo Zabaleta: Many Mexican restaurants in the City explore innovative interpretations, which is excellent. But Iván is interested in preserving traditional recipes, keeping them alive here.

IG: For years and years, I dedicated myself to search for every ingredient I needed. Adding the chiles en nogada [Mexico’s national dish of stuffed poblanos with creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate] to the menu was a big accomplishment. It is a very complicated seasonal dish, but here I can keep it on the menu all year.

How has the community received your food?

GZ: I think that people in this City have traveled a lot. They live in very diverse communities, so our diners know what good mole is, what a mixiote is—they expect that quality, and that motivates us.

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Chef Garcia in the kitchen of Mesa Coyoacan

Why did you choose Williamsburg for your first restaurant?

IG: Twelve years ago, most of the culinary scene was in Manhattan, but some friends told me about this [available spot in Williamsburg]. I thought it wouldn't work; the neighborhood was so quiet. But then I entered the kitchen and I fell in love. When I got home, Gerardo asked, “Iván, who is going to Brooklyn?”

GZ: Well, look around now. We arrived just in time; this became our barrio. Zona Rosa is a few blocks away, and so is our apartment. Everything is always done with the neighborhood and community in mind. The neighbors are our friends and our restaurant is a place they come to celebrate.

How has the pandemic impacted your restaurants?

IG: We had the great fortune of being asked by Feed the Front Lines NYC to cook for hospitals and health workers, cooking more than 1,000 meals a day. I was very worried about not providing jobs for our employees, because many people here depend on our weekly salary to pay rent and to help their families in Mexico. It is a huge responsibility.

Mesa Coyoacan

Where else do you find Mexican culture in the City?

IG: In New York, if you find Mexicans, you find Mexican culture. Queens is great for concerts with music from Oaxaca. On September 15, Mexico’s Independence Day, we have a huge party here in the restaurant.

What do you do on your days off?

GZ: We like to go to the park with [our 5-year-old English bulldog] Cajeta. We go to restaurants, see what is happening in the City.

IG: But mostly we meet with our family on the phone. It is our day to catch up, talk with my mom, my grandma and my son [Mauricio, who now has a daughter of his own but has been denied a tourist visa and has been unable to visit] and ask how everyone is doing.

See I Carry You with Me, now playing in select theaters.


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