Don’t get the delicious red guajillo chile sauce on your sleeve. It will never wash out.
Ever since immigration from southern Mexico began in the 1980s due to prolonged drought, Mexican food around here has been getting better and better, as more fresh ingredients have been imported, and staples like tortillas and cheese began being manufactured here. The food remains remarkably inexpensive considering the quality of the ingredients (giant dark green poblano peppers, just-picked papalo leaves, hand-pulled Oaxacan cheese, an astounding range of dried peppers, etc., etc.), and the skill in preparation is as great as anything found in the city’s finer restaurants. Here are five of our favorite dishes.
1. Chicken Enchiladas With Guajillo Chile Sauce — This plate of food could not be simpler: a rich stock of ground red chiles and chicken fat enrobes enchiladas containing chicken and nothing else. The sauce has a burn, the chicken and cheese mellow the burn, and each bite flies down your gullet on wings of flavor. Down Town Bakery (69 First Avenue, 212-254-1757)
2. Milanesa de Res Cemita — The iconic sandwich of Puebla arrives on a round seeded roll thickly layered with Oaxacan cheese, avocado, a beef wienerschnitzel, refried beans, papalo leaves, cilantro, and other smeared goodies. Wienerschnitzel? Yes, the Germans were all over Mexico in the 19th century, building railroads, and introducing beer and accordions, among other things (though the name implies an Italian etymology). Tulcingo del Valle Deli (665 Tenth Avenue, 212-262-5510)
3. Tongue Taco — Explain it however you want, but the tongue taco is the most delicious of the tacos, the meat supple yet richly textured, the taste ineffably beefy, the double soft white-corn tortillas (probably made on Flushing Avenue in Bushwick) the perfect backdrop. Cilantro, chopped raw onion, lettuce, and red sliced radishes are automatically provided, but it’s up to you to squirt on the red or green salsas. El Idolo Truck (Eighth Avenue and 14th Street every afternoon and evening)
4. Sizzling Skirt Steak Fajitas — A Tex-Mex staple invented in Houston in the 1940s, but utilizing cooking techniques common in northern Mexico for centuries beforehand, fajitas are one of the great audience participation meals. You decide exactly what goes inside your flour tortilla, and your choices number over a dozen. El Cantinero (86 University Place, 212-255-9378)
5. Chile Relleno Taco Placeros — Known as “market tacos,” this type of taco has some off-the-wall fillings if you’re accustomed to the usual al pastor and carnitas. The one pictured features a breaded and fried chile relleno stuffed with cheese and dropped into a warm corn tortilla with yellow rice. Roasted pepper strips underneath may be incorporated into the taco. A hopelessly starchy and filling feed? You bet! Tacos Morelos (94-13 37th Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens, 347-832-0193)