The décor is comically slapdash: colorfully painted walls, a string of Xmas lights, and—behind a bar which currently serves no alcohol (BYOB!)—a welter of posters for trashy Mexican movies so obscure that only J. Hoberman might recognize them. That’s it. But what La Superior lacks in interior design, it makes up for in good food.
La Superior (“The Best”) is located in the Billyburg’s Wild West, where the pylons of the Williamsburg Bridge sink themselves into polluted soil. This mainly residential area, where workers once packed lunchboxes before heading downhill to the Domino Sugar factory, has few commercial storefronts, but those that exist are rapidly filling with bars and small cafés. The late Pies-N-Thighs was a harbinger of things to come.
The place came enthusiastically recommended by my coworker, Araceli Cruz, who hails from southern California. “I could never find Mexican food that I liked in New York,” she lamented, “till I found La Superior.” While not strictly Cal-Mex in its outlook (there’s no birria or burritos), the menu represents an assimilated take on Mexican food, consciously inventing a kind of Gothamite-Mexican cuisine. It does this by appropriating recipes from several regions (Toluca, Guanajuato, Yucatán, etc.) and adapting them for New York tastes. That means plenty of flavor, while moderating the chile heat to almost nil. It also means forgoing Mexican recipes that require complex mixtures of obscure ingredients—I’m thinking of southern Mexican moles with their multiple dried and fresh chilies and time-consuming preparations—and letting simple ingredients shine, including plenty of prickly pear cactus, beans in a rainbow of colors, and earthy, hand-patted masa, garnished with cilantro, onions, and lime wedges galore.
A simple black bean soup (sopa tarasca, $6) from Michoacán, one of Mexico’s poorest regions, comes with crema, crisp, shredded tortillas, and smoked ancho chilies, to be mixed in as you slurp the soup. “Don’t worry, those anchos are not very spicy,” our bearded waiter noted, as if he were inoculating us against painful sensory overload. (We later discovered he was born in Sweden, accounting for both the Grizzly Adams beard and his fear of chilies.) But the soup is spectacular anyway, with a jolt of tequila adding to its depth of flavor. La Superior has a sure touch with beans, and the little pot of frijoles charros ($5) features pintos flavored with onions and bacon, though the jalapeños promised by the menu are, once again, a distant cultural memory.
The menu looks fairly inexpensive, with tacos priced at $2.50, or $3.50 for the centerpiece of the menu: a tender lengua (long-stewed tongue), sliced in a julienne. Unfortunately, the tacos come on miniature white-corn tortillas, and you don’t get two per taco, either. Nevertheless, the tinga tacos are superb, a Pueblan recipe of shredded chicken in a smoky orange chipotle sauce that retains a degree of heat. The restaurant’s obsessive miniaturization can get hilarious: Attributed to Mexico City, the gorditas (two for $5) are fried masa pouches no bigger than your thumb. Split like pitas, they spill chorizo, potatoes, and ricotta onto the plate. (Ricotta? That’s real Goth-Mex!)
Other recommended dishes include a chunky guacamole served in a teeny volcano-stone metate; ezquites, Araceli’s favorite—a warm corn salad dressed with dried cheese, lime, and mayo, resembling some mutant street snack; and, best of all, a crazy sandwich called torta ahogada ($7.50), which comes from the streets of Guadalajara, a graceful landscaped city of 100 plazas. It features a length of baguette (Goth-Mex again!) stuffed with pulled pork and drenched in gravy. It’s up to you to figure out how to eat it.
Open six months, La Superior has lately taken to offering bimonthly specials printed on the bottom of the menu in bright red. These often represent bigger feeds than things on the regular menu and are more hit-or-miss when it comes to culinary success. Enchiladas mineras, from Guanajuato in north-central Mexico, reminded me of the Michoacán enchiladas I’ve eaten in northern California: a few tortillas lying flat, coated with sauce and heaped with queso seco, salad, and salsa—not particularly interesting except as an indicator of extreme poverty. La Superior charges $10 for their version of this less-than-appetizing mess, then fines you $3 extra for throwing on an extraneous piece of quite good roast chicken.
The Baja-style fish taco ($3.50) fares much better, a good-size hunk of sustainable, snow-white tilapia topped with garlic sauce and guajillo chilies. Do I have to mention that the chilies, though tasty, are also very mild?