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Distinguishing Factors in Determining Good (authentic) Mexican Cuisine in Manhattan: Kahlua's Cafes and other venues in El Berrio

With much food that has migrated, often along with the people, from differing parts of the world, it is often quite a task to find authentic manifestations of such cuisine.

The symptoms that infect much of the representations that claim to be of one ethnicity or nationality are several, and one being that dishes are watered down to only include pork, beef, chicken and fish and seafood, excluding such things that derive from animal blood and organ meat. This seems to be the case with Mexican food in NYC, which has a wide distribution with restaurants focusing on Burritos and Fajita (which are not Mexican at all, but Tex-Mex). Guacamole and these two aforementioned items seems to be the main features at places such as San Loco and the more larger representations that dot midtown.

I recently asked a Mexican who lives in Queens as to where there is authentic Mexican food in Manhattan, and I learned of two places, Rosa Mexicano (1st ave below 59th) and Mama Mexico (Upper East). Rosa Mexicano is across from the Chinese owned Japanese restaurant called Eno corner of 58th and 1st ave. (no relation to Brian Eno). I did visit the French Joul Cafe upon finding that Rosa opens only for dinner (Joul Cafe 1070 1st Ave). Joul Cafe has good goat cheese pizza, burgers and of course french food.

To stay on topic here, Rosa Mexicano and Mama Mexico cater mostly to a non-Mexican clientele, but have heard they are quite good. Thus said, I should add that one Mexican server and cook at San Loco told me, they are both Americanized. This honest employee from Mexico told me that "I won't lie to you, I don't eat here [San Loco] to get the food I love from my country".

So, as a rule that perhaps does not need to be stated, find the locations and places where the natives who have not assimilated into American food eating habits eat.

Heading up; over; down or across to El Berrio, or Spanish East Harlem, will offer some great places in the authentic catagory.

1. Kahlua's Café at 2117 3rd Ave below 116 St.
2. Minaya Deli Grocery 2262 2nd Ave on the North East Corner of 116 St.
3. Querido Mexico Lindo 2267 2nd Ave between 116th St & 117th St
4. Taqueria Guadalupe 1743 Lexington Avenue btw 108 and 109 Streets

Kahlua's Café at 2117 3rd Ave just down from East 116 Street on the east side of 3rd Avenue is a very nice local establishment with authentic Mexican food in a small comfortable storefront.

Though not offering organ meats, as much as I could tell on my first visit, Kahlua's Cafe certainly does offer some excellent Mexican food and caters mostly to the Mexican population in the area. You'll enjoy the dishes in an atmosphere that has two large sized photos of the Argentine hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara as well as other celebrated Mexican artists and more. This place is just the way it is, meaning not a contrived atmosphere with tacky fake Mexican themed decor, but one done up very nice by the owner(s). The Mexican patrons talking together with a bucket of Corona and some authentic dishes as well as appreciating the native songs played jukebox (variety of Mexican, as well as Dominican Bachatas) , attests to the authenticity of the place.

Honest photos depicting many of the dishes are on the wall behind the bar. Burritos and Fajitas are included along with Tortas; Cenitas Antojitos Mexicanos (Mexican Delights) such as Chalupas with beef or chicken or cheese, and Sincronizada and Huaraches ("Named after the huaraches sandals the dish is made by flattening rounds of masa dough then topped with various fillings"). Nachos come in a varity with beans and cheese, chorizo and Nachos Tejanos. Bottled beer is 4.00 (Corona; Modelo and Modelo Negro and others). I suspect that their cans of Tecate may be cheaper than the 4.00 bottles.

I have yet to visit Rosa Mexicano or Mama Mexico on the Upper East, and after my experience eating and having a bit to drink at Kahlua's Cafe, I think the need to visit such up market Americanized places becomes much diminished.

A less sitdown place just up and over on 2nd Ave and 116 Street is Minaya Deli Grocery (at 2262 2nd Ave on the North East Corner) serving some really good authentic tacos done up fresh right before of your eyes. (http://www.hatmax.net/EAST_HARLEM/Ave...

)

Across 2nd Ave from Minaya Deli and just a door south of a nice Mexican bakery called Mi Querido Mexico Lindo (at 2267 2nd Ave between 116th St & 117th St), is a Dominican owned bar with Presidente for $4.00 and much Dominican Buchata and Tito Puente from the jukebox, making the place a lively alternative to any trendy and contrived hipster bar.

In the quest for neighborhood venues, just over west on Lexington just up from 108 Street is Taqueria Guadalupe (1743 Lexington Avenue). This place does much exhibiting a real neighborhood place, and a visit should be in store for those venturing for authentic Mexican. I have yet to go there but looked inside, and have read great review of the place.

On the organ meat note, it is so sad to see a once cheap and very authentic (Dominican or Puerto Rican) gone that had steal trays of the soupy or stewy offerings that used to be located on the first stretch of Clinton Street up from Dalancey. I think it used to be where Nonna's L.E.S Pizzeria now is.

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    1. Guadalupe is not very good. The vegetables are usually limp and there isn't much flavor in store. I haven't visited the bodega or the two other places you mentioned, but if you're looking for cheap Puerto Rican snacks, you can get morcilla and stew at the very brightly lit Cuchifritos on 116th.

      4 Replies
      1. re: JungMann

        Thank you for that suggestion.

        Morcilla looks quite delicious, and do believe I have never had it.

        1. re: JungMann

          I still may have to visit Guadalupe, though thank you for the report identifying limp vegetables.

          For those who like Japanese food, who may be reading this, Saburi on Lexington just btw 30 and 31, has added natto to the menu. That is nadou ( 納豆) for those of you using Chinese. They serve it with okra.

          1. re: jonkyo

            If you're trying to avoid Tex-Mex burritos and nachos, there's little reason to go back to Taqueria Guadalupe, because that's pretty much their strong point (which isn't saying much). Chowhounders have repeatedly recommended several other places in the near vicinity: Cafe Ollin for one. San Francisco de Asis is also not a terrible option in the neighborhood. If you're looking for authenticity, little beats tucking into chiles rellenos in front of a candlelit statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

            1. re: JungMann

              Thank you for the suggestions you listed.

        2. I just want to clarify that when you say NYC above you mean Manhattan, right?

          1 Reply
          1. re: Peter Cuce

            Correct. I do believe that finding authentic Mexican cuisine in Manhattan is a more difficult task than finding such in, say, Queens or Brooklyn. Easier for the feet in Manhattan, but more difficult due to the flood of pseudo-Mexican restaraunts that have long been the fashion here and elsewhere.

            Other places in the area of 116 street such as El Nuevo Caridad and Camaradas look promising as well. (http://www.camaradaselbarrio.com/).

            I visited Mi Palenque Restaurant at 154 E 112th St also, and have found this report: http://streetmeatnation.blogspot.com/... That place is next to Euphoria 69 Sports Bar at 156 East 112th Street just off Lexington.

            SEAFOOD BAR EL CHICANITO CORP

            154 E 112th St, Manhattan, NY 10029-2814

            Friendly people and they have a full menu, huge space, and was told evenings they have a DJ spinning Latin and Mexican dance tunes.

            I didn't visit Euphoria 69, but I think the name says it all.

          2. Tulcingo del Valle on 10th Ave. in the 40s is very authentic, quite good and extremely easy on the wallet. I usually get tacos there, but a friend once ordered one of their southern Mexican specialties in a pumpkin-seed sauce and the reports were very good.

            10 Replies
            1. re: foodmonk

              I will certainly have to go there. Thanks.

              1. re: foodmonk

                I and a friend visited El Maguey Y La Tuna on East Houston, and seems to be somewhat authentic, but I do have to say the homemade hot sauce (a bit on the creamy side) is so good at this one small shop, Sabor a Mexico, 160 1st Ave. Really hot and full of flavor.

                I was told that Sabor a Mexico tried to offer some organ meat dishes (tripe etc) such as Mexicans are used to, but they did not sell, so they took them off the menu.

                1. re: jonkyo

                  Jonkyo I applaud your enthusiasm.

                  About the offal, though: I have spent a lot of time in Mexico, in various regions of the country, and apart from menudo (which is often eaten after a "borrachera"), I did not see vast amounts of organ meats on tables. I'm not saying that they don't eat them, but I believe that they are far less common in Mexican cuisine then, say, in the Chinese traditions. There are however, many incarnations of meat from various parts of the pig's face, from the cheek to the lips, and tongue (is that offal?) and on and on. One must brush up on porcine anatomy before ordering tacos in a market stall!

                  Anyway, happy eating!

                  1. re: erica

                    Offal may seem less common in Mexican food because it is not used as promiscuously as in Chinese (fish maw soup with mustard anyone?). But sesos, orejas, tripas, lengua, higado all have their place on the Mexican menu. I've even had goat's blood tacos with tripas at one point that I thought were fantastic. This is not to say everyone eats every part of the animal, of course, but it's there if you look.

                    1. re: erica

                      yeah, it still bothers me when buche is described as stomach - the best descriptions ive seen call it "crop" which is apparently a pre-digestive organ (though it would appear to have a differnet use in British English).

                      my favorite taco shop in santa barbara had ojos tacos on the menu, but they were made of mostly the muscles and tendons from around the eyes, there were no lenses or eyeballs to be found.

                      in general id say it is somewhat unfair to say that not having lots of offal on the menu disqualifies a Mexican place as inauthentic (while acknowledging that most discussions of authenticity are kind of a joke to begin with) in the same way that it would a Chinese spot. Not having at least 3-4 different preparations of pork, on the other hand would be a sure indication that they were cooking for gringos.

                      1. re: erica

                        I have spent some time in Mexico too and other than menudo I don't recall too many composed dishes consisting of organ meats. Taco stands though were a cornucopia of offal. Pig uterus was an interesting choice. The generalized cabeza tacos were probably my favorite. I have not found a good version in Manhattan and usually stick with tongue. Taco Mix is good, followed by the one on the corner of 116th and Lex. I plan on doing more exploring this summer when it is more pleasant to wander.

                        Granted I am not sure if I can find traditional fare made by Mexicans of Lebanese origin for some Al Pastor, but I can try.....

                        1. re: MVNYC

                          there is good al pastor in sunset park, though its pretty far from its lebanese origins. i know there are at least a few places that are somewhat known for their tacos arabes in the outer boroughs as well (though ive not had any that really spoke to me).

                          1. re: MVNYC

                            "Taco Mix is good, followed by the one on the corner of 116th and Lex"

                            Thanks for this. Good to know.

                            1. re: jonkyo

                              I had really excellent buche tacos at Taqueria el Maguey (3910 4th Ave. Btwn 39th St and 40th, Brooklyn); the lengua was very good too.

                              The best al pastor I've had so far (I LUUUURRRRVE al pastor!!!) has been from the Morelos Tacos cart on Av. A and 2nd St. I go there almost every night after work and have a couple. Their lengua tacos are good too, but I can't keep away from their al pastor.

                          2. re: erica

                            Erica, that is good reporting, thank you. In other locations in the US I have had differing tissues from the pig, such as tongue and stomach, etc.

                      2. El Paso Taqueria on 103rd and Lexington sells some of the best Authentic Mexican food outside of Queens. They have a take-out place with limited seating across the street from the main restaurant which sells wonderful food. Their chorizo tacos and tortas are outstanding.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: chilerosa

                          I will have to check this out, since you use the words outdtanding.

                          Tacos are geat, but unless one goes to the exceptional places, I do not find them appetizing.