Unless you have been blindly walking around town, packing your lunch for every meal, you have, no doubt, noticed the proliferation of Mexican restaurants in this city. A new one pops up every week or so: We’re witnessing refocused efforts on guacamole and burritos, verdolagas and huazontle are now for sale in Williamsburg, properly trompo’d al pastor is available in Harlem, and even the high-end chefs are getting into the tortilla game. The old, annoying cry that “there’s no good Mexican in NYC” is starting to lose its resonance, and a greater understanding that Mexican cuisine isn’t slipshod technique cloaked in lard, cheese, and crema has settled on the city.
There has been great Mexican food in New York City for much longer, of course, though mostly just in the home kitchens of immigrants. In the past 25 years, the Mexican population in NYC exploded, taking over bodegas in Sunset Park and Bushwick, sourcing ingredients for their burgeoning communities, working in kitchens throughout the five boroughs. Young chefs coming up in city kitchens were influenced by this diaspora, working the line together, asking for their salsas to serve at family meal. Now, instead of the chefly pilgrimage to the great food cities of Europe, cooks are drawn to Baja, California; the Yucatan; and the bustling streets of Mexico City, where they’re captivated by markets, street food scenes, and the gastronomic avante garde.
And that’s paved the way for this Mexican moment: Nixtamalization is the new fetishized technique at Los Tacos #1 and Mission Cantina, and Alex Stupak continues his Mexican empire expansion. We have an all day food hall at Cafe el Presidente; fast-casual at Otto’s Tacos; killer nachos at Taqueria Diana; and Mex-Asian fusion at Tijuana Picnic and Lucky Luna. In the decidedly more corporate arena, ESquared Hospitality ditched BLT Burger to open Horchata; cocktails and clubby scenesters populate La Hormiga Negra; Orale Mexican Kitchen opened uptown; and the overblown Disneylandia that is El Vez anchored in Battery Park City. Last but not least is a bastion of immigrant-owned-and-operated places, whose creativity deserves more than the tomatillo seed size of media attention it gets in a churning sea of self-aggrandizing green sauce. See, for example, La Mesita in Bushwick, Tehuitzingo in Hells Kitchen, and Country Boys in South Slope.
And more is coming soon: The Mayfield team is opening a Mexican restaurant in Crown Heights, and Mexico City’s most acclaimed chef, Enrique Olveras, is planning something for the city.
This boom might be a mainline to capitalize on commodity food trends or it could be a genuine obsession with unlocking the perfect ratio of sour orange and habenero in a xni pec salsa (and in reality, it is probably a mixture of both). But whatever the motive, the newfound interest in Mexican cuisine is good for everyone. Mexican cook and author Diana Kennedy might bitterly denounce the culinary freestylings of many of the new crop, but the more options we have at every notch in the hierarchy — from cramped taquerias in the back of bodegas to DF-style mezcal bars to elaborate tasting menus — the richer the field gets.
Time can weed out the disingenuous from the more durable fixtures. In the meantime, let’s eat.