If you’re addicted to the excellent tamales sold surreptitiously from shopping carts around the Port Authority, give those at the East Village’s Sabor a Mexico Taqueria a try. Jam-packed with stuffing and more subtly flavored, the tamales arrive opened like spring flowers, cradled in their corn-husk wrappers. A lovely chile gravy cascades over the top, the way mamita might serve them a su casa. Best is rajas con queso ($3.50), a vegetarian number opulently freighted with flame-roasted jalapeños, onions, tomatoes, and cheese—though another version veined with chicken and salsa verde gives the rajas some fierce competition.
Sabor a Mexico (“Flavor of Mexico”) is a shoe box on First Avenue, sporting only four tables and replete with the usual south-of-the-border decorations—an Aztec calendar, a Virgin of Guadalupe, and a black velvet painting of the full moon rising over Acapulco. Unlike most taquerias in town, Sabor serves beer, which is ideal to wash down the enchiladas, tortas, and soft corn-tortilla tacos that form the heart of the menu. The proprietors hail from Guerrero, a mountainous, mainly rural state that extends from the outskirts of Mexico City to a long shoreline that—paradoxically, given its agrarian nature—includes the glitzy resorts of Ixtapa and Acapulco.
Sure, you can also get specifically Guerreran standards at Sabor, including a pair of unique pozoles ($12.95 each). They’re available all week long, rather than just on the weekends, as at most of the city’s Mexican cafés. And with winter coming on, there’s no better warm-up. These are not the bland white soups found in Pueblan spots. Instead, pozole rojo has a good dose of chiles in a brick-red broth, in addition to shredded chicken and white hominy. There are no tostadas served alongside. In lieu of them, you’re given a basket of chips and invited to doctor the potage with a collection of flavor enhancers: pungent Mexican oregano, sweet white onions, green chiles, fragrant cilantro, sour lime wedges, and an entire half-avocado, crosshatched for easy disgorgement into the soup.
Much rarer in Gotham is pozole verde. Colored green by mountain herbs, the soup is tasty enough even before you throw in the accompanying flavorings. Originating in Guerrero’s capital of Chilpancingo, the green version is eaten there only on Thursdays, according to Diana Kennedy in My Mexico—and then usually at breakfast. On First Avenue, you can have it anytime. Showing the vast culinary range of a state that includes arid mountain landscapes as well as beach-dotted seacoasts, another quintessential dish on Sabor’s menu is camarones a la diabla ($14.95), a half-dozen shrimp bobbing in a thick red gravy made smoky with chipotles. As in most dishes of Mexico’s Deep South, lots more sauce is present than you need. To be eagerly sopped with rice and tortillas, the liquid is the real focus of the meal.
In addition to the usual pan-Mexican dishes, the tiny café-that-could replicates such regional southern Mexico commonplaces as mole poblano and mole pipian, both featuring chicken; hand-sculpted masa huaraches; chiles relleno filled with cheese in a plain tomato sauce; roasted carnitas; and flautas filled with your choice of chicken, cheese, or the dried beef called cecina. At this point, the menu loudly grinds its gears, and shifts into a Mexican-American vein. The rickety bridge between these two culinary cultures is the overstuffed burrito, the towering achievement of California-style Mexican cooking, supposedly perfected in San Francisco’s Mission District.
You can get all the regular gringo burritos ($9.95 to $11), but what’s more interesting are the selections invented at Sabor to represent states in Mexico. This is what linguists call a “back construction.” Thus we have a burrito named after the state of Guerrero that uses chicken in pumpkinseed sauce, and one for Puebla with the familiar pollo mole poblano. The Michoacán variation enfolds fried carnitas, while the one attributed to Toluca is mainly rice, scrambled eggs, and skinless chorizo.
Sabor does Tex-Mex, too. You can get flour-tortilla tacos with a ground-beef filling and steak fajitas—these come dancing on a hot metal platter, but the meat component is uninspiring. However, the restaurant’s nachos ($9.95) are superb, and no tavern does them better. The welter of freshly fried chips come swamped in cheese, with a heap of guacamole planted in the center, and satellite patches of crumbly chorizo, diced tomatoes, and fresh jalapeños. Put on your plastic suit and dive into the moist muddle. It proves that Mexican immigrants from the southern reaches of the country understand exactly what their brethren have been up to in the Lone Star State for the past century or so. Or maybe just what East Villagers like to eat.