In the 1980s, a New Yorker’s exposure to Mexican food was mainly limited to a handful of restaurants serving a style of cuisine that closely resembled Tex-Mex, their menus filled with fragrant sizzling fajitas, cheese enchiladas, and the like. But then Pueblans from the arid south of that hilly southern state began to arrive late in the decade, after a 10-year drought that starved the population and depredated livestock herds. The population first worked predominantly in the garment and restaurant industries, but soon began to own bodegas around the city. The now-defunct Matamoros Puebla Grocery in Williamsburg may have been one of the first, appearing in the early 1990s. As did other bodegas, this place soon slipped a taqueria into the rear of its premises, and thus was New York’s distinctive bodega taqueria born.
These establishments often vended a menu of tacos, enchiladas, and weekend pozole, while continuing to make the hand-patted huaraches, sopes, picaditas, and quesadillas that were favorite antojitos back home. The tortillas they used were made with fine-grained white masa in tortillerias that sprung up in underutilized Bushwick factory spaces — an industrialized product that continues to be used all over New York today.
For a taste of a classic bodega taqueria, L-train to Bushwick and the Santa Ana Deli (171 Irving Ave.), founded in 1986 and turned into a taqueria by Polo Teco and his family years later. Shelves of groceries still stand, but the menu at the end of the room epitomizes the home-style meals Pueblans want to eat in this country. Included are tacos Arabes, which have a fascinating story that goes back a century to when Iraqis and Syrians arrived in the city of Puebla, introducing the vertical rotisserie loaded with lamb and a white-flour flatbread to wrap it in. The taco Arabe we have today is filled with seasoned pork and smeared with a fiery chipotle sauce rolled in a flour tortilla, and Santa Ana Deli produces one of the city’s best.
These days the New York City Mexican menu reflects regional inspirations from many areas of Mexico. Here are some excellent Mexican trucks, lunch counters, cafes, and restaurants that at least partly reflect the cuisine of the individual states with which they are associated. A single characteristic dish is selected from each.
Note that, in New York, even the most region-oriented Mexican cafe will serve pan-national fare like burritos and tacos in order to appeal to the widest range of customers. Dig deeper on the following menus, presented by region in alphabetical order.
Adjacent to Oaxaca and Guatemala, Chiapas is Mexico’s southernmost state. Much of it is jungle, with rainforest highlands. Chiapas cuisine makes use of indigenous herbs like chipilín (in English, “longbeak rattlebox”), hoja santa (a bit cinnamon-y), and epazote (like burning rubber tires, but very tasty). A shaggy dog wearing a sombrero is the logo for Casa Enrique (5-48 49th Ave.), a small but celebrated restaurant in Long Island City. Chef Cosme Aguilar was raised in Chiapas, and his menu includes cochinito Chiapeneco, pork braised in bright red guajillo chile sauce, among other dishes from his home state.
Located in the state of Guanajuato in the Central Highlands north of Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende is one of Mexico’s most picturesque colonial cities, dating to 1542. Beginning early in the 20th century, it also spawned an artist’s colony and became a big tourist attraction, and eventually was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. After a career operating Mexican restaurants in Manhattan, Luis and Veronica Juárez moved to Bay Ridge in 2010 and opened Coszcal de Allende (6824 Third Ave.), a restaurant that evokes the atmosphere of the mountain town. The dish most characteristic is enchiladas Sanmiguelense, stuffed with cheese, dowsed with a piquant salsa verde or salsa roja, and then mantled with more cheese and crema.
After immigrants from Puebla began to arrive in New York, those from nearby states of Morelos and Guerrero soon followed. Among Mexico’s most rugged and mountainous states, situated southwest of Mexico City, coastal Guerrero is also home to Pacific resorts that include Acapulco and Ixtapa. Sabor A Mexico (1744 First Ave.) on the Upper East Side represents a small Manhattan and New Jersey chain owned by Roberto Escamilla, hailing from Guerrero. Only this flagship location offers a small menu of Guerreran specialties, including a stunning green pozole — a hominy soup sided with chopped onions and jalapeños as well as a pile of Mexican oregano, all of which should be swept into the soup. Here, the cooks substitute chicken for the usual pork, but it’s delicious nonetheless.
This coastal state directly west of Mexico City is home to Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city and important tech center, and the beach resort of Puerto Vallarta. Jalisco is a land of tall mountains, pine forests, and jungles, with a rugged coastline. Birria is perhaps the state’s most famous dish, a spicy red meat stew. It’s hard to find in New York City, where the only rendition I know of like the original Jalisco version is served from a paper cup at the Tacos El Bronco truck (860 Fifth Ave.) in Sunset Park, which puts out a few chairs on the sidewalk in summer. Birria served here is often made with broth and meat from the cow’s ribs.
A few years ago owner Pedro Pablo Castro transformed his small cart on Roosevelt Avenue into an impressive sit-down restaurant a few blocks north. Its full Mexican menu features several items associated with Morelos, a small state directly south of Mexico City and west of Puebla, known scenically for its green hills and waterfalls, and culinarily for its diverse moles. One of those available on the menu of Jackson Height’s Tacos Morelos (9413 37th Ave.) is a wonderful pipian rojo, a brick-red mole made with crushed pumpkin seeds you can eat with either pork ribs or chicken. But, sopped with tortillas, the mole itself is the meal.
With its pre-Columbian roots and labor-intensive moles, several of which are made from dozens upon dozens of ingredients, the cuisine of Oaxaca — a mountainous state in the far south that’s still a hotbed of indigenous cultures — is some of the best in Mexico. One of the pioneers of the cuisine has been La Morada (308 Willis Ave.), a small but ambitious cafe in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx. There one can get freshly made moles in agreeable shades of black, brown, green, red, and white, and tlayudas, giant round flatbreads popular as late-night snacks that come opulently topped with things like chorizo, black beans, queso Oaxaca, tomatoes, and fresh jalapeños. Under direction of chef Natalia Méndez, La Morada also functions as a neighborhood clubhouse and center of equal rights activism.
While much Mexican food in New York comes from the southern part of Mexico, Sinaloa is a coastal state situated in the northwest across from the Baja Peninsula. Early last year we had a cafe devoted to it, Taqueria Sinaloense in Elmhurst, where you could get the dried beef called machaca scrambled with eggs in a taco; or chilorio, a chile-laced pork stew served with beans. Elmhurst’s Sinaloan cafe sadly closed not long after it opened, but soon an unrelated Taqueria Sinaloense (113 West 225th St.) opened in Marble Hill, the Bronx. It offers a taco gobernador (“governor’s taco”), lusciously filled with an abundance of oiled shrimp, fresh chiles, onion, and cilantro.
Tlaxcala is Mexico’s smallest state, due east of Mexico City and renowned for its Olmec ruins, cattle ranching, and maguey farming. Tia Julia (40-08 Case St.) began as an Elmhurst taco truck, but moved into a storefront late last year. An al pastor cylinder rotates in the window, but one among several unique dishes offered at Tia Julia (“Aunt Julia”) is dobladitas — potatoes wrapped in flour tortillas and deep fried, then snowed with queso fresco. The cafe is also justifiably proud of its café de olla, sweetened Mexican coffee.
Further Regional Delights
For a great take on the celebrated Baja fish taco — which has appeared at dozens of city dining venues over the last five years, some Mexican, some not — hit up Los Mariscos (409 West 15th St.) in the Chelsea Market. The chicharron preparado (artificial-pig-skin platforms littered with chorizo or carne asada and other toppings) found as street snacks in Tijuana are available at Sunset Park’s Tacos Tijuana B.C. (5807 Fifth Ave.). Bistros and bars serving Tex-Mex cuisine have become a thing in New York recently, and Gramercy Park’s Javelina (119 East 18th St.) accurately reproduces much of the menu, including the Bob Armstrong dip made famous by Matt’s El Rancho in Austin, a variation on chile con queso.
Those homesick for California-style Mexican food will find that Lupe’s East L.A. Kitchen (110 Sixth Ave.) in Soho does a broad range of Angeleno specialties, including crisp fried potato tacos. Finally, while Mexican-American cuisine has been evolving for a century or more in Texas and California, Puebla York is a relatively new phenomenon. A hint of its potential riches can be found in New York’s take on pastrami tacos at Union Square’s Flats Fix (28 East 16th St.). And also check out the cheeseburger taco at Empellon Al Pastor (132 St. Mark’s Pl.) in the East Village, and the sumptuous french fry nachos at Antojitos El Atoradero (636 Degraw St.) in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood. What’s next, New York, a horchata egg cream?