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Does New York mexican food really suck?

  • h

OK chowhounds, here's your challenge.

Our friends all warned us before we moved from Ft. Worth that the Mexican food in NYC stinks. No, to be more precise, I should say that we were warned that what passes for Mexican food up here would be worse than week-old leftovers from Taco Cabana. That what New Yorkers called "Mexican" was in fact overpriced, high-falutin' Southwestern garbage of the Coyote Cafe/Mark Miller variety that even a Californian-turned-Austinite would recognize as a crime against nature. Or worse yet, that "Mexican" up here meant a limp California perversion consisting of humongous, tasteless burrito "wraps"--I shudder even to mention that word!

Before we threw in the towel, though, we thought we'd give it a try. Zagat's and Sidewalk have been useless, written by New Yorkers for New Yorkers. What we're looking for is the stuff that every Texan will recognize instantly as a piece of home. For some, this means Tex-Mex like Joe T's or La Familia in Ft. Worth, or Guero's or Las Manitas in Austin. It means incredible mole sauce; pecan pralines in Saran wrap by the register; piping hot tortillas made like they do at Ninfa's; Lone Star or Shiner on tap, and of course, iced and salted margaritas on demand; $7 combo plates so big that you're set for lunch the next day; salsa made fresh every day, sometimes twice a day, served with greasy chips so thick and crunchy that you're likely to sever an artery if you bite one wrong; maybe even off-the-menu items like roast cabrito tacos; greasy migas with chorizo for Sunday breakfasts; and finally, food that's not-too greasy going down, but is sure to give you a lard-induced food coma.

So what do you say, chowhounds, does it exist up here? Help us Obi-Wan, you're our only hope!

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    oysterpancake

    If you do a little search (see the home page), you will find a thread titled "Does Authentic Mexican Exit in Manhattan?" There are several places mentioned in this thread.

    I just add one place to those that are mentioned: Taqueria Y Fonda, which is on Amsterdam bet 106 and 107. The place is a tiny hole in the wall, and when it first opened, most of the clientele were Mexican. Now there are nights when the majority of diners are non-Mexican, but I think the food is still just as good.

    There are other Mexican restaurants on this stretch of Amsterdam Ave, a reflection of growing Mexican population in the area.

    You'd also want to investigate East Harlem, along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, where there are many, many Mexican restaurants.

    1 Reply
    1. re: oysterpancake

      i second tacqueria y la fonda. fantastic thick chips (served with two different salsas) and horchata, and very tasty tacos with more authentic-seeming filling choices.

    2. The answer is "NO!!" Having lived and traveled extensively in Mexico I have eaten my way through lots of "real" Mexican food from various regions of the country. I, too, was disappointed after returning to see the poor pickings here in NYC. Obviously you can forget Zagats and most of those magazine articles on the subject. Your only hope is to get your self to an area such as Roosevelt Avenue in Elmhurst where there are a batch of Mexican places that cater mostly to lower-income Mexican workers. These places are usually run by Pueblans and that is the type of food you will find...various tacos, tortas, basic hot dishes like enchiladas verdes y rojas, etc..but not good mole, unfortunately...too complex for these sort of places. This is, of course, not the same as the stuff you probably eat in Texas but it is not bad..just don't get your hopes up too high. If you can't make it out to Queens, there are a few places on 116th Street in East Harlem and another on 9th Avenue called Dos Rancheros Mexicanos or something close. That is the state of "real" Mexican food in the city as I know it.....

      1 Reply
      1. re: erica

        That level of assertiveness is just very unwise. For example, if you have the Lamb Shank Mixiote at Rosa Mexicano paired with a glass of Monte Xanic Cab... that is truly authentic Mexican cuisine that is rarely found in the U.S.... extremely rare even in L.A. or Texas. They had other well executed dishes from deep Mexico.

        The stuff in Texas is overwhelming Northern Mexican cuisine which is the least developed region of the country. Its good & very tasty... but the cuisine that is most identifiably Mexican is that which has a deep history in Mesoamerican tradition.

        Manhattan is one of the few places in the U.S. where you find such food... Chicago is another (thanks to Bayless & his ex-staff).

        At the same time, the bulk of what is sold in Manhattan is unfavorably distorted. But to say its not possible to find Authentic Mexican cuisine in Manhattan is a flat out lie.

      2. having grown up in Ft. Worth, you will be hard-pressed to find any Mexican restaurant ANYWHERE that matches Joe T. Garcia's.

        the closest i ever found is the now-gone La Lupe, lost because new yorkers seems to prefer gringo to authentic.

        lots of great places to TRY though, of hispanic ilk. personally, i'm partial to the ceviche at Braulio Y Familia in Woodside, Queens.

        peace,
        Tree

        1. ha ha ha ugh. why does this post repeat itself endlessly? what will follow next? why can't i get a decent philly cheesesteak in new york? how's about my thing too (being a former clevelander)--why can't i get pierogies in every pub in town and some perch & walleye? well the answer is everyplace you go has it's own specialties. so be it.

          boy i dream about bbq, GUERO'S and migas con hongos at LAS MANITAS. hell, i even dream about putting stuff on my TACO CABANA tacos too. it's just not what this town is all about. the street pronounced how-ston should have been another clue.

          the best i can suggest is that you take a stroll down roosevelt in queens as suggested above. also, give the korean bbq a go, no it's not texas at all but it's good. good luck on your quest and please do report back your findings. shucks, now you all went and got me thinkin about texas again.

          1. the answer: an absolute YES. and in my honest opinion, just don't even bother searching if you are looking for anything that passes as authentic mexican (although tex mex is slightly easier to find than real mex). I've been to the places in queens, I've been to the uws for the places near broadway and amsterdam, i've scouted out the tamale vendors in various manhattan and borough locations and you simply won't find it. period.

            some places will have the facade of a great discovery, but only to realize that the "mexican" food is unfortunately influenced by some other spanish speaking country. As if the language alone qualified a place as authentic.

            I finally got over the perplexing nature of the poor state of mexican food in nyc and have resigned myself to cooking it myself when I have a craving (often, at that). At any rate, it makes me anticipate my travels out west that much more.

            Sorry to break it to you, but someone has to do it... :)

            the good news is, outside of mexican, nyc is about the best place on earth for most other cuisines. happy searching.

            16 Replies
            1. re: adamclyde

              First, strong disagreement on Tex-Mex. I don't know a single decent place for it for miles and miles from NYC.

              Re: Mex-Mex, you've checked the obvious places. Those are no more than starting points. Before giving up (and certainly before urging others to), you owe it to yourself to scout on your own. Chowhounding is about widening your vistas by intrepidly scoping places, not by walking in the tracks of others.

              It's especially essential with Mexican food, because there's a weird effect around here. Places open, are great for a while, then dive in quality. I've seen it happen again and again. I've had dozens of meals as good as in Mexico City at places that a few months later turned utterly useless. So you need to eat ahead of the curve, not behind it.

              Here are suggstions: start on 116 and 2nd Ave (yes, there's lots of Puerto Rican and Dominican stuff thereabouts, but those places are in decline, the nabe's turning Mexican). Then eat around Sunset Park, a huge Mexican Neighborhood. Don't miss La Espiga in Elmhurst, which is a rare Mexican that's kept its quality high...but try them several times because they blow hot and cold. Another place that's apparently stayed good is Castro's Coffee Shop (511 Myrtle Avenue (between Grand and Ryerson), Brooklyn
              (718) 398-1459). I haven't been there lately, and reports trailed off a few months ago. But it's a lead. But...again, screw the leads. Go try places, little anonymous places. Be methodical, get a quick huarache in a different place every day. Some will suck, some will blow your mind. Just go be intrepid and inquisitive.

              There is a lot of great Mexican food in NYC at any given point. But it's extremely fluid, so you need to move quickly, and go scout stuff for yourself off the well-worn path. Be a chowhound!

              And, of course, please report back the hits and misses.

              ciao

              1. re: Jim Leff

                I would add the Bronx to the list of neighborhoods to scour for good Mexican food. I've seen good and bad taquerias sprout up in Mott Haven, Hunts Point, Longwood, Melrose, and the Hub. The Mexican population there is growing, and they really don't expect to see gringos around.

                1. re: JackS

                  Absolutely right. This place, for instance, was mentioned on the boards a while ago, and was killer, at least six months ago when I last visited (per my previous posting, it might well be awful now):

                  Real Azteca 1013 E163 St 860-1566 (take #6 train to 163rd St./Hunts Point Ave)

                  .and there are lots more. As with any other sort of food, you've got to go thru bad ones to get to good ones, and sadly few people are out there doing the chowconnaissance work (so the conventional wisdom is fatally inbred).

                  ciao

                  1. re: Jim Leff

                    i work on 163rd and i can vouch for REAL AZTECA, but like many new york mexican places its not real reliable like some places out west seem to be.

                    for example, there is a large bodega in the hub area on 149th & brook ave. that has an attached kitchen area which opens and closes down with lightening regularity. several incarnations have been outstanding, others terrible. the mexican folks running it (renting it out?) come and go very quickly.

                    however, with more and more people from mexico moving into new york, the situation is bound to improve soon. the south bronx is up and coming for more consistant mexican chow.

                    1. re: mrnyc

                      Not to belabor my point, but Real Azteca was consistently slamming once. You and I are late to that party, because we were following up on the work and reports of others.

                      There are others cooking great right NOW (and which will be inconsistent 6 months from now and terrible in a year). Lots of 'em. NYC abounds with great Mexican food at any given time, but it's a brass ring that can only be grabbed by the most energetic and intrepid chowhounds.

                      Not to moan and groan (nor is this at ALL directed at you, MrNYC!), but sometimes I feel like the majority of users here wait for others to find deliciousness so they can follow their tracks. Which is contrary to the whole point!

                      There are many thousands of us, counting the silent lurkers. Let's each one of us go eat a quick research gordita or chalupa somewhere new tomorrow (walk a block or two out of your way!) and report back if we find something good. Shoot, we can cover the entire city in a couple of weeks! We have the manpower, we have the know-how!!

                      ciao

                2. re: Jim Leff

                  thanks jim. while I certainly don't intend to discourage anyone from searching, I do see the prospects of good mex in nyc dim. as for my own searching, i've even gone as far as cross referencing nyc city planning records with census records to locate new neighborhoods with growing mexican populations to find potential treasures (a process I'm still undergoing, by the way). to date, it is still lacking. I'll continue to report on what I find. as for now, the verdict is, unfortunately, still poor.

                  1. re: adamclyde

                    "i've even gone as far as cross referencing nyc city planning records with census records to locate new neighborhoods with growing mexican populations to find potential treasures"

                    Really? Kewl! Where do you find such records? I'm not sure that a lot of Mexican immigration is "on the books," but the tool intrigues me!

                    Sunset Park's ripe for picking. I'm about to do some major chowhounding in Sunset Park. Taqueria El Paisano was killer there for a while, but, like the rest of them, declined. There's great stuff now, and I'm gonna find it. Will report in Chow Alert.

                    ciao

                    Link: http://chowhound.safeshopper.com/25/c...

                    1. re: Jim Leff

                      Jim -

                      OK, here it is - for an easy map of NYC's mexican population:
                      http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/pdf/censu...

                      If anyone is interested in other populations and where they are distributed in NYC, go here:
                      http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/cens...
                      (in case you ever wanted to know where the largest filipino or bangledeshi populations are
                      )
                      [You can find much more detailed information (down to the city block) on both the US Census records (www.census.gov) and the NYC's city planning pages (www.nyc.gov/html/dcp).
                      ]
                      The mexican records don't reflect too much more than what we already know. However, who knew there were decent mexican populations in Staten Island???

                      Bringing this all back to food - hopefully this will be a resource to those wanted to search out food from specific ethnic groups.

                      And, finally, back to the original mexican food discussion - I'll be continuing to search these neighborhoods and hope that I will be pleasantly surprised to find a few that pass the test. I'll pass on what I find.

                      1. re: adamclyde

                        That's wicked great info, Adam. Much obliged. We'll certainly include all that in this week's issue of ChowNews.

                        ciao

                        Link: http://chowhound.safeshopper.com/23/c...

                        1. re: adamclyde
                          b
                          babar ganesh

                          ok, now i know where to look for the best multiracial nonhispanic chow in nyc...

                          1. re: adamclyde

                            Besides the census tract information available through nyc.gov's site, I look at this report from the census bureau for information on various geographies for cities, counties, metropolitan areas and so on. For example, I just figured out that Orange County, CA has the largest concentration of Vietnamese in the US (or at least it seems to from a cursory look) with 135,548, when I always thought that was Santa Clara County (i.e., around San Jose), which has nearly 56,000. In case you're curious, the Vietnamese populations of New York, Boston and Philadelphia are roughly the same, hovering around 11,000 in each city. This is just one example of the info I pick up by going through this report. Anyhow, if you're a numbers geek like me, you'll appreciate it.

                            Link: http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2000/dp...

                            1. re: Eric Eto

                              Particularly for those connecting to the internet via modem, note that the link eric points to is a 8.5 megabyte file, a few seconds download time by broadband. 10 minutes to half hour by modem.

                              http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2000/ brings you to the menu that eric used to select that file.

                              Link: http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2000/

                              1. re: wrayb

                                Oops. Thanks Wray for bringing up the size of the acrobat file. Another suggestion is to download the file (for PC users) by right-clicking on the link and selecting "save link as..." and open it up on a local drive.

                      2. re: Jim Leff

                        The garment center is now populated with a bunch of mexican restaurants, owned, run and patronized by actual mexicans who work in the area doing piece goods sewing.

                        Dos Rancheros Mexicanos on 38th and 9th is one, and there are a couple on 38th between 8th and 9th.

                        You may try these for authenticity. I don't think they'll answer your tex-mex desires.

                        1. re: Randi

                          Dos Rancheros is a great example of the fast burn-out syndrome. They were great for a few months, and have been running on fumes ever since.

                          I forgot in previous postings to mention Portchester. Superb Mexican up there. Its heavy on the low branches. There's a tortilleria I reported on in my Chow Alert newsletter that's particularly great (haven't been there in four months or so, so IT may have dived, too). Here's what I wrote:

                          INCREDIBLE TACOS (AND HORCHATA)

                          I first spotted Tortilleria El Paisano (167 Westchester Ave, Port Chester, NY; 914-934-0372) driving 40 m.p.h. past the front door. I instantly fell in love and promised speedy return. It's a high-ceilinged tortilla factory that also serves food, and if there's a more sure-fire scenario for deliciousness, I don't know it. The tortillas travel around the inside of the building on an amazing ancient clattering conveyer belt; I couldn't figure out exactly where they were coming from or going to (and the machine oil smell was slightly jarring in a food service venue), but once you're inside for a few seconds, you realize you've gone far, far away from Westchester county.

                          Tortilleria El Paisano is a portal; just browsing the menu (on a big board in back of the makeshift counter) made me feel as if I'd been beamed to Mexico. It's a tremendously transportive experience. And the chow's superb.

                          Their tacos are the best I've found in the Tristate area. I don't need to mention that tortillas were impeccably fresh and delicious, so let's cut to the fillings. We had buche (tripe), egg-and-chorizo, lengua, cabeza, and a sope (tostada-like) with al pastor. First off, a warning: tripe is often translated as "tripa" (as on the menu here), but it's wrong; a false linguistical friend. What we call tripe is "buche"; "tripa" usually means intestine. So unless you want chittlin' tacos, stick with buche. We did and were amply rewarded. The buches were grilled very crisp and were so rich and luxurious and crunchy that each consecutive fress team member to try them was instantly moved to rapture, as if some viral delirium had spread over our table.

                          Cabeza was just as good, almost too delicious to bear. As for the egg-and-chorizo, the chorizo they use is the cheap stuff squeezed out of a packet, but great things are done with such chorizo all over Mexico, and likewise here. The result was a masterwork of cumin, hearty grill flavor, and eggy tenderness (a subtlety which would not have survived wrapping in less fresh/delicate tortillas). Lengua was fine, but tamals were not good at all (though, even so, respectable: they're a terrible sort of tamal made according to an awful recipe, but are nonetheless surprisingly edible - a testament to the kitchen's prowress). The sope was sloppy and satisfying, though the meat wasn't true al pastor. Horchata (in a huge glass jar from which customers self serve with a giant ladle) was the best I'd ever had, including in Mexico. It was thinner than usual, less chalky/thick/sweet/sticky, yet still undilutedly ricey. It was quenching; truly a licuado.

                          We declined to squeeze a bit of lime on the tacos. We drizzled nary a drop of (low-profile, high-pepper) salsa. We just gloried in fresh tortillas and great fillings; any modification would have been defilement.

                          Link: http://chowhound.safeshopper.com/25/c...

                        2. re: Jim Leff
                          b
                          Blood In Blood Out

                          Los Amigos in Astoria. 31st Street and 23rd Ave, under the bridge. Good salsa and guacamole. Authentic style. Mana in the jukebox. And they're open untill 2:00.

                          I like some Tex-Mex places too but they never roll the burritos right.