Justin Bazdarich is busy. The day before his new restaurant Oxomoco opened in June 2018, his wife had a child. “My life has sort of been upside down for the past seven months,” he said earlier this year. “I’m trying to figure out how to manage three restaurants, and my wife and I have been trying to figure out how to live.”
Those other two restaurants are local staple Speedy Romeo, which opened in Clinton Hill in 2012, and its relatively new Manhattan outpost, which opened in 2015. (To handle it all, Bazdarich has a system in place, he said, allowing him to give equal amounts of time to his restaurants and family, which he learned from an interview with the CEO of Twitter he heard on the radio.)
And things don’t look to be slowing down. After spending nine years with chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at his Manhattan eatery Perry St and helping open a steakhouse in Las Vegas, stints that taught him wood fire techniques, Bazdarich has become one of the most celebrated names in Brooklyn’s culinary scene.
Oxomoco might be his biggest project yet. The distinctive restaurant, which focuses on wood-fire cooking and traditional Mexican cuisine, has become one of the most popular spots in Greenpoint. Located at 128 Greenpoint Avenue, it has an airy vibe, with a generous outdoor area in the front and a spacious interior that feels tucked away and, on sunny days, is illuminated by large skylights. Walking past, you might miss it; when inside, you feel removed from the world outside.
After the success of Speedy Romeo, why did you want to tackle Mexican food?
We do Italian flavors at Speedy Romeo — pizza out of the wood burning oven, steaks and seafood off the wood burning grill as appetizers and entrees. Then I sort of came to the idea that I wanted to create more restaurant concepts and I wanted them to all be wood fire. Imagine a wood fire French bistro or Middle Eastern restaurant. Mexican was my first choice in that capacity.
What attracts you to wood fire?
The origins of all food come from a wood fire. With Mexican food being so ancient, the evolution of the process of using corn in their culture and many of their techniques of pit roasting or barbacoas, that element of smokiness in the food was a big draw for me. But then also, a lot of the chilis and others things have a lot of smoky flavors, so I knew that we could marinate meats and fish, put them on a wood fire grill and then on a taco, and it would be a home run.
What was the process of learning about the cuisine?
This one came a lot through eating. My business partner and I have both traveled all through Mexico and have been able to taste all the variance of flavors throughout the whole country. With that, my knowledge of cuisine itself is extensive, but that’s only based on eating. I first wrote the menu, but then we were lucky to bring on a great consulting chef to start. A friend of a friend had recommended this fellow named Kaelin Ulrich, whose mother is a famous Mexican cookbook author. He was from Oaxaca. Luckily enough, we were able to have time where he was able to come and help us for about three months. Many of his recipes came from his mother’s cookbooks, but essentially if he wasn’t involved I would have just used cookbooks as inspiration for bases, to fill in the blanks for the menu I wrote. I had the vision of the menu first and then I basically came through the back end. That’s the big difference and what made us unique: We didn’t just follow the recipes. We would roast things over the wood fire first, then incorporate them into the sauces instead of your normal techniques.
What attracted you to the space you opened Oxomoco?
Everything appealed to me about this stretch of Greenpoint Avenue. It’s an historical block, the lot that Oxomoco sits on and the buildings that it’s between are beautiful and frame our little shop so well. I don’t feel like I’m in New York — it could almost be main street of a small town. The water is right down the street. And then, the fact that there is nobody above us was an immediate attraction. We looked at other spaces that were warehouses or garages. But the energy here was really appealing to me.
Were those other spaces you looked at around Greenpoint?
We did target this area, but this was the furthest north of anything we saw, starting from South Williamsburg to North Williamsburg to Greenpoint. I was also intrigued by the fact that it’s a touch out of the way, or that it’s not as populated as Williamsburg. Rents are out of control. It’s almost more than Manhattan. This turned out to be one of the better rents, and that was fantastic.
You have a background in architecture — how important is the design of a restaurant?
When I walked into the Oxomoco space for the first time, it was four white walls. I’m good with visualizing how it will look with nothing in it. I could really see it before it’s there. My partner Chris and I are very involved in the design process and we both know that it makes a big difference.
What were you envisioning?
We tried to create a feel that wasn’t already in New York. We wanted people to feel like they’re in Mexico or California. It’s a touch of a vacation to get you out of your normal day-to-day. I think we’ve achieved that.
What are your thoughts about the Brooklyn restaurant scene?
It’s changed a lot. There was a joke someone who worked at Jean-Georges said to me once, like, ‘Do you want to be the guy that one day just opens this little place in Brooklyn? Or do you want to be the guy who has a place in Manhattan.’ I was like, ‘Oh, yeah man, Manhattan.’
That seems to have changed.
Now, I would prefer to have my restaurants in Brooklyn. I think that the drive and the want for good food in your own neighborhood is huge. Where I live in Bed Stuy — I live across from Speedy Romeo so I eat there a lot. But I’ll maybe go to Fort Greene to eat somewhere, or I may stay in Bed Stuy and eat somewhere. I don’t really travel to Manhattan to go out to eat and I know there’s lots of people in Brooklyn who don’t do that either. They would rather stay in their neighborhood.
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Brownstoner magazine.
[Photos by Oxomoco]
- Miss Ada’s Tomer Blechman Rethinks Mediterranean Cuisine in Fort Greene
- Egg’s George Weld Keeps It Local
- Williamsburg Chef Missy Robbins Finds Time for Cookbook, Second ‘Burg Eatery, Life