I’m a born and raised Los Angelina, currently dwelling just a mere stone’s throw from Loisaida, and thus, take my Mexican food very seriously. I’ve come to discover over the last several years since I moved to New York City that much to my shock and dismay, an abundance of good and cheap Mexican eats does not necessarily exist in other large metropolitan melting pots, even where a significant Hispanic population has more than a substantial presence.
It’s a conundrum I find more than a little strange. Hispanic/Latino culture is obviously thriving in NYC. They comprise nearly 30% of the city’s population, according to the 2010 census. So, why the dearth of good Mexican food in a city that has close to 24,000 restaurants?
My first couple foodie forays, to what certain friends (who shall remain nameless) deemed as “the best Mexican restaurant”, left me rather broken-hearted. $14 guacamole? No handmade tortillas? No fish tacos? Can someone please make me a decent mole?!
So disillusioned was I that at one point, I simply gave up, vowing only to eat Mexican food when I traveled back home to visit. And I would, the entire time, just to get enough of a fix, to tide me over for a couple months. It had been a several times a week staple of my California diet, and I refused to let NYC sully a cuisine I treasured. I’d rather abstain rather than risk further disappointment.
Thankfully, right about that time, I was sent on a mission by Tasting Table to photograph Tehuitzingo (695 10th Ave., between 47th & 48th St.), a little joint in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen that serves amazing, authentic Mexican food out of a hole in the wall in the back of a grocery store. And by a hole in the wall, I mean, you head all the way to the back, past the glass cases of traditional ingredients (piles of cactus, cilantro, rainbows of peppers, & home made cheeses); through a narrow mirrored seating area with less than a dozen stools, lit bright neon green by the cerveza signs overhead; to a literal hole in the wall, where-in two senoritas wait to take your order in one muy pequena cocina. They’ve got some slightly unusual ingredients on the menu, like goat, tongue, and tripe, for more adventurous eaters. I opted for one pollo and one carne asada taco, which came simply topped with diced tomatoes, onion, and cilantro. A variety of bottled hot sauces adorn the counters, to add your own brand of spice. The first bite instantly transported my palate and sense memory right back home. I couldn’t stop at two and quickly ordered another, blissful in the knowledge that I’d found an answer to my comida cravings after all. Tehuizingo is a funky little gem, serving up real Mexican flavors, in a no frills setting, where one can easily walk out stuffed for less than $10. It’s a great spot for a weekday lunch with co-workers, a quick bite when you’re on the go, or a late night snack, when in Midtown.
Faith restored, I dared to try Mexican restaurants in NYC once again, and soon discovered several surprisingly delicious joints along the way. Here’s my carefully curated short list, just in time for your Cinco de Mayo festivities:
Dos Toros Taqueria – 137 4th Avenue; 11 Carmine Street
Dos Toros is to NYC, what Poquito Mas is to LA. It’s not fast food. It’s really good, fresh food, served fast. There’s usually a long line (actually a good sign), but it moves fast as they’ve got their system down to a science. It can be tricky to find a seat, but people don’t tend to linger either. They’ve got the standard fare – tacos and burritos with your choice of chicken, carne asada, or carnitas – being the most popular. Quesadillas, tostadas, and platos con arroz y frijoles round out the rest of the menu. I’m a creature of habit when it comes to this place and always go for the carne asada burrito with guacamole. Everything is made to order just the way you like it and typically comes with a heaping portion of crispy tortilla chips. Their prices are cheap by NYC standards. The portions are quite filling and delicious. I also give them props for their sustainable business practices. They make a point of letting customers know that their chicken is locally raised with no hormones or antibiotics; their produce is locally sourced; and that they compost, recycle, and use non-toxic products.
Tacombi – 267 Elizabeth Street, between Prince & Houston; in Chelsea Market, W 15th Street, between 9th & 10th Avenue
Tacombi’s tacos make me so happy I could cry. They simply explode with layers of undeniable flavor and spice. The “barbacoa” – shredded beef cooked in a red chile sauce – is a must eat, go-to favorite of mine. That’s until I bite into a “pollo verde” – shredded white meat chicken in a mild green chile sauce – and lose my mind with delight. Their fish tacos, either fried in a crispy beer batter or seared, topped with red cabbage and creamy pepper sauce, are sure fire winners, as is the shrimp taco, prepared in one devilishly spicy sauce that seriously kicks. You must get one of their fresh “agua” concoctions to wash it all down. The hibiscus tea and watermelon juice aguas are refreshing and not too sweet. I actually love mixing the two brews together. Not to worry, they sell beer by the bottle too.
Tacombi has a cute little “tacobike” cart set up at Chelsea Market, in the 15th Street Arcade, which is perfect for a quick bite at lunchtime or a mid-afternoon snack. You may have to fight the hoards for a seat at one of the indoor tables though. Better yet, since it is street food, that’s often where I’ll eat, on a nearby bench or up on The High Line, for a picnic overlooking the Hudson River.
The ambience of Tacombi’s Nolita location is loads of fun. Their sky lit, open warehouse is home to a bonafide 1970’s VW bus that’s been converted into their taco serving station. Peek through the bubble window as they warm your tortillas on the grill and assemble your taco with all the fixings. The space is filled with cream-colored metal folding tables, painted with red checker/chess boards on top. Kitschy 60’s surf films screen on the walls, and the vibe is upbeat, yet relaxed. It’s a slice of Playa del Carmen or Baja, right in the heart of Lower Manhattan.
Hecho en Dumbo – 354 Bowery, between E 3rd & Great Jones St
Hecho’s reputation for killer cocktails is what initially drew me. Their food solidified it as a real contender for this list. We walked in sans reservations, late one Saturday afternoon, and were able to nab those prime seats at the end of the bar, right in the front window. The bartender was very friendly and knowledgeable, helping steer us towards a Tres Vidas (smoked chile, bell pepper, lime & mezcal) and a Margarita Tamarindo (tequila blanco, fresh squeezed tamarind juice, and chile piquin rim). Both were spicy, yet refreshing, stiff, quality cocktails. Instead of sitting down for dinner, we stayed perched at the bar, for optimal people watching and several small plate antojitos – short rib steak tacos topped with diced onion and cilantro, queso fundido with fresh salsa and warm flour tortillas, and a tuna sashimi tostada – perfect choices for a leisurely afternoon or happy hour. I love that they use all locally sourced and organic ingredients, and make all the fundamental components of their dishes, fresh in-house. You can definitely taste it.
Word has it that this place gets pretty packed and noisy for dinner, but they recently started offering a 5-course chef’s table menu, which seems to me perhaps the best way to experience Chef Danny Mena’s skills. Parties of two only are seated at the back counter, peering straight into the open kitchen. The menu highlights fresh seafood and local meats, prepared in cherished, traditional Mexican style, for a reasonable prix fixe of $55. It’s available by booking online only, via their website or at Open Table. You heard it here first, amigo. De nada.
Hell’s Kitchen – 679 Ninth Ave, between W 46th & 47th St.
I had the rare pleasure of indulging in a 7-course chef’s tasting menu at Hell’s Kitchen recently that put all other past experiences of Mexican cuisine to shame. Chef Jorge Parilla pulled out all stops to give us a taste of his hometown of Alpoyeca, Mexico and his most cherished family recipes. We kicked off the feast crunching tri-colored crispy corn tortilla chips, served with not one, but 3 distinctive types of guacamole, which we paired with a classic margarita a casa. We were then treated to another series of ‘pequenos trios’: First, 3 golden empanadas, each with their own incredible sauce to match – roasted pork with crema fresca and salsa, duck en mole with pico de gallo, and huitlacoche truffle and mascarpone cheese with salsa verde. Then, 3 pillowy maize tostadas – tiger shrimp, ground pork, and carne asada – drizzled with salsa verde. Perfect little bites! Next, the chef utterly captured my heart with his traditional pasole – a hominy and pork stew, topped with avocado and fried leeks, cooked with such love, it warmed my belly and soul. It’s an unforgettably comforting bowl of goodness that would make any hangover run for the hills. As if that wasn’t enough, we then dove into 3 huge entrees – roasted lamb shanks with cilantro mashed potatoes, tamarind rubbed grilled sirloin with fresh vegetables in an endive-pasilla sauce, and pan seared sea bass with sweet plantain puree – all cooked to perfection.
We sipped on a Hell’s-Ma-rita, with fresh tamarind and lime juice in an ancho-salt rimmed glass, and a Watermelon Mint Lemonade, as Chef Parilla chatted with us about his inspirations. He was so humble, sharing stories about his food, an expression of passion for his land and close-knit familia. Eating this meal felt like a privilege and an honor. The food was not only one of the best meals I’ve had in recent memory, but Chef Parilla’s dishes are some of the most colorfully creative, genuinely artistic plates around. I can say with total and utter confidence that Hell’s Kitchen is the best Mexican restaurant in New York City. Hands down, period, the end. Vamanos immediamente!
I’d be remiss not to mention a couple of other spots that serve up some signature cocteles that make for a mighty fine siesta:
El Camion Cantina and Tepito are terrific East Village joints for margarita happy hours. They both serve up great classic margaritas as well as some really tasty fruity margaritas, my favorite being passion fruit, pomegranate, raspberry, or hibiscus. They all go down way too easy, and for a mere $5, why not sample them all? I’d recommend the margaritas in lieu of the food at both of these places, though the meals that I had at each were good.
Yerba Buena, however, serves up some really special cocktails, not to be missed. Their Piquito Picante is probably one of my favorite cocktails in NYC. It’s an intoxicating concoction of gin, jalapeño infused cointreau, cilantro, cucumber, and lemon juice that strikes a perfect balance of spicy and cool, and smells like pure heaven. I also love The Desert Rose, made with dried rose infused gin, prickly pear puree, and lemon juice. In all seriousness, there’s no bad call on this cocktail menu. Imbibing here is a bad habit waiting to happen because you want to try every single offering. The bartender and host are also easy on the eyes and fantastically cool gentlemen to boot. I can’t speak to the food, yet, as I’ve only been for drinks at the bar, but the place is always packed, and the restaurant is a beautifully designed, intimate, warmly lit space. Yerba is easy to overlook from Avenue A, but swing open the door and you’ve stepped into one sexy space that plays that sophisticated, but not overly so, note just right. It’s a great, laid back place to bring that date you want to impress. Lucky for you, they’re offering a special Cinco de Mayo menu. ¡Disfruta la fiesta!
For more recommendations, be sure to check out my Eye For Style “Best Mexican Food in NYC” map!