Californian transplants to New York like to say that New York lacks good Mexican food. Which, of course, isn’t true. Check out Corona or Sunset Park, and you’ll see. Granted, Manhattan doesn’t offer the plethora of great regional Mexican you’d find on nearly every corner in Los Angeles—in the five boroughs, you have to know where to look. But sometimes West Coasters are actually hankering for “Cal-Mex”—a strange amalgam, somehow both heavier and more dietetic than more traditional Mexican cuisine. Huge quantities of pico de gallo are often deployed, as well as sour cream and guacamole. A subset of Cal-Mex, the San Francisco Mission-style burrito, is a creation that people get terrifically homesick for, while non-Californians shake their heads in wonder that anyone could get so worked up over an overstuffed tortilla.
Now, two new downtown places are slinging gringo-fied taqueria fare. Dos Toros, near Union Square, offers true Cal-Mex, starring obese burritos filled with virtuous things like locally raised roast chicken. And on the Lower East Side, Ludlow Street’s Los Feliz is peddling fancy tacos and tequila. Though named after a neighborhood in Los Angeles, it serves food that bears only a slight resemblance to Cal-Mex; instead, it offers something that might be called loungey-Mex.
At Los Feliz, owned by the folks from Spitzer’s Corner, the food is not really the point. The three-level tequila lounge goes for Tennessee Williams theme park—cobblestone floors, tin roofs, distressed mirrors, faux-decayed grandeur. The surprise comes when the food, by chef Julieta Ballesteros, is much better than it needs to be.
Check out the tacos, which come two to an order, but are so tiny even the most birdlike eater will need four to be satisfied. In particular, don’t miss the taco called chicharrón de pollo, although there’s certainly no chicharrón involved. (Somehow, I can’t imagine the skinny-jeans-wearing throngs noshing on fried skin.) Instead, it contains nubbins of deeply caramelized chicken, cooked into a dark mass with grilled pineapple and cotija cheese, crowned with guacamole. The shrimp tacos, also worth snacking on, taste like an unlikely cross between a mole and a Thai curry: red chile–peanut sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds and livened by a tangle of pickled carrots. But skip the barbacoa tacos—somehow, the kitchen has managed to alchemize beef into cotton.
Non-Latin diners are just beginning to realize that quesadillas are not sad, grease-laden bar food, but lively, authentic antojitos. At Los Feliz, we particularly liked one toasty tortilla that encased a slew of slippery, tar-black huitlacoche bits, lashed with crema. The delicacy also goes by the wonderful moniker “Mexican corn smut.” In the United States, the fungus is considered a disease, blooming bulbous and mushroom-like in ears of corn, ruining the crop. But in Mexico, the huitlacoche spores are harvested for their earthy flavor.
I’m accustomed to paying no more than $2 for spectacular tacos at small joints in the outer boroughs—Los Feliz obviously charges more, but has to be judged on its own merits. Still, $9 for two tiny tacos is steep, no matter how delicious the chicken, strong the margarita, or entertaining the people-watching. And, weirdly, everything comes wrapped in paper, an incredibly wasteful practice. Can’t they spring for a dishwasher? Still, if you’re after the sort of night Los Feliz provides, you could do much, much worse.
Up near Union Square, Dos Toros strikes a more earnest tone about its Cal-Mex. “Just so you know,” murmurs the menu, “our chicken is locally raised. . . .” (Perhaps over on Fifth Avenue?) After the treatise on sustainability, the menu turns laconic: Mission-style burritos, tacos (either soft, or—eek!—crisp), quesadillas, and platos, which are simply the burrito fillings without the tortilla. If you’re homesick for Mission-style burritos, you’ll be happy with these chubby torpedoes of food.
In a 2003 New Yorker article, Calvin Trillin described the Mission-style burrito as “distinguished partly by the amount of rice and other side dishes included in the package and partly by sheer size.” They’re also distinguished by price, meant to be an ultra-cheap way to fill your belly for several days, the way a snake slowly digests a large mouse.
As for the size criterion, Dos Toros’ burritos hew to tradition, and they almost manage the cheapness factor—a basic burrito with everything but meat costs $5.97; with meat will run you $7.35. The taqueria sprung from the imaginations of Berkeley transplants Leo and Oliver Kremer, whose stated aim was to re-create the S.F. burrito in all its many-ingredient splendor. (Oddly enough, Leo moonlights as the bassist for Third Eye Blind.) At Dos Toros, each jumbo flour tortilla gets steamed briefly (the better to stretch!), larded with a thin slice of cheese, and filled to near-bursting with heaping quantities of beans (pinto or black), rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, hot sauce, and sour cream. (For best results, I’d decline the rice and sour cream, but don’t forgo the guacamole.) Then you get a choice of meat: roast chicken, carne asada, or carnitas. Although all three are fine, the carnitas is by far the best—moist swabs of braised pork shoulder. Ask for the extra-hot sauce (the regular hot sauce wimps out), a delicious brew of roasted green chilies that imparts much-needed kick to the burrito gut-bomb.
The quesadillas are easier to wrap your mouth around, and they allow the meat and hot sauce to shine without being muted by beans and rice. The usual large, floppy tortilla gets a bit of cheese, plus your choice of meat and sauce, and sizzles for a minute on the griddle. As a piece of Americana by way of Mexico, it has an easy appeal, no matter where you come from.
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