Friday, April 20, 2012
Mexican Food in NY City
I moved to NY City in 1992 and the panorama of Mexican food in the city was appalling: nachos, watery frozen margaritas and burritos the size of Sherman tanks. A guacamole made from a single puny avocado would set you back 9 dollars (still a fortune, in my view) at Rosa Mexicano, which was decent but outrageously expensive for food Mexicans eat at home every day.
Luckily, things have changed, and with the influx of many Mexican restaurant workers and the realization that Mexican food is serious gastronomic genius, New Yorkers now have many much better, more authentic options to enjoy.
Still, I am extremely hard to please because I am a stickler for authenticity, or at least coherence. People ask me what is my favorite Mexican restaurant in NY. To be honest, I rarely eat Mexican in town. It tends to either exasperate (the added gringo preciousness) or disappoint me (the lack of understanding of the genius of the technique and the ingredients. The cluelessness).
My standard response so far is, I really like the appetizers at Hecho En Dumbo. They are very good. The rest of the menu is also good, if uneven. But you can't go wrong with their sopes, carnitas and tamarind margaritas (the only exception I will make to the classic margarita). My problem is that food that you can have on the street in Mexico for a handful of dollars becomes adds up expensively when served at a NY restaurant. La Superior in Williamsburg does decent tacos, but again, it lacks the schmutz, the grime, the proletarian aspect of the real thing (Wait. Apparently now they have a taco truck). And I have yet to schlep all the way to Queens in search of a decent taco. I hear they are not very good.
Several years ago, La Esquina promised to make my dream come true: a place where you can get a quick taco fix after the movies or after bar hopping. I really like their sopa de tortilla, which may not completely pass muster in Mexico, but is very dignified here. Some of their tacos are quite good, and so is the quesadilla de huitlacoche. However, their taco de acelgas (swiss chard) is overwhelmed with lime, for no discernible reason. Not all tacos go with lime. Beef and pork tacos go with lime, stewed vegetable tacos don't. But La Esquina still does not replicate the Mexican taquería experience, because of the ordering system, because New York has yet to understand and refine the fine art of being a taquero, which slings perfect tacos at breakneck speeds to hungry crowds. The good news is, since we are fast becoming a Third World country with rising inequality, and NY is becoming more expensive by the minute, we might yet see the advent of cheaper, better food for us plebes. The rise of the food truck is a sign. Soon nobody will be able to afford to eat in a restaurant anymore.
Ever since I moved here, my dream was to open a torta joint in NY, so that my fellow citizens could learn the meaning and magnificence of a truly spectacular sandwich. I imagined my place as a tiny hole in the wall, with maybe 6 seats, no decor but the best sandwiches in town. It may happen yet. Recently, Tortaria, a torta and taco place, opened in University Square. Tortaria is also one of those joints which can satisfy the need for a quick taco or torta apres le film or avant la debacle, so we gave it a try. The food is tasty. But there are concessions I do not understand. I imagine, much to my chagrin, that many of the compromises one sees in Mexican joints all over town are due to some of the ridiculous hygiene regulations of the city, like not being able to have food hanging around, and who knows what other unduly paranoid rules. But it's the creative flourishes that annoy. The bread at Tortaria is like a brioche hamburger bun, which is very good, but it is not the classic torta bread (bolillo or telera: the closest thing is a Portuguese roll). Then the fillings are good, but too fancy. Braised short rib torta. I know it sounds petty to complain about this, which might even be very good. But the point of a torta is that it is simple. The point of a torta is that you can have ham and cheese, or eggs and ham, it does not need to be caviar. Also, the point of a torta and its attending tortero (the guy who makes it) is that you can choose your own combos. So if you want to have chorizo with potatoes and egg, they can make it for you. Still, we had the torta de milanesa, (schnitzel torta, a Mexican classic) and it was very tasty, with a chipotle mayo, avocado, beans, etc. But the crust of the schnitzel was burnt and the whole thing was not exactly a classic torta. Their steak tacos are pretty good, and they make the tortillas in house, which is great, but I am tired of people calling carnitas to stuff that isn't. Carnitas are the height of Mexican street food. This was just stewed shredded pork. It's like calling tapioca caviar. Don't. Plus, their sopa de tortilla is absolutely inedible.
I've been to Tacombi and was disappointed, not so much by the flavors, but by the tepid temperature of the tacos. Tacos are served piping hot. Pleasant La Camelia on Bedford street is very tasty, but you almost need a microscope to see the tacos, whose tortillas are made in house but end up resembling sopecitos more than a taco. Dos Toros, which is a better Chipotle (utterly abject), has good tacos, but not very authentic. They're from San Francisco.
So the closest to a real taco experience are the now ubiquitous taco trucks. Not all of them are good, but now there is one, Mexico Blvd., that I really like. I must disclose that the owner, Jorge Loaeza, is a very good friend of mine, and the man who gave me my first job in advertising in Mexico City, back in the Pleistocene period. Yet if his tacos, tortas and guacamole were not splendid, I would feign madness and avoid talking about them. I am happy to report that the tacos and tortas of Mexico Blvd. are delicious. The tortillas from Tortillería Nixtamal are very good, the fresh salsas are awesome. They found this perfect torta bread somewhere in upstate NY and it is delivered to them every day. Jorge and his son Jordi have developed some secret guacamole method that manages to keep it green and fresh without overwhelming it with lime juice. My only nitpick is that I would love the chips to be plain and not the lime and chili chips they provide. I am that vantz of a purist.
Because they are food lovers and Mexicans (which is actually one and the same), the Loaezas understand the essence of Mexican food, so theirs is pretty authentic. They don't invent fancy stuff. You can recognize the truck by its elegant black and gold design. I love eating my tacos and/or tortas right there, and washing them down with a cold Sidral Mundet (Mexican apple soda), as in a true taquería. Mexico Blvd.'s customers get most everything to go, but I would invite them, now that the weather is nice, to eat standing by the truck. It may be the closest to the Mexico City taco experience you can get in NYC.