I heard from my friend Steven Alvarez — a professor at St. John’s University who teaches a course called Taco Literacy — that restaurants with real Mexico City flair were appearing on a single block in Jackson Heights. So, a few days later we found ourselves standing on the corner of 89th and Roosevelt Avenue looking up at the bright red awning of Michelada House II, a corner restaurant on a bustling stretch of one of NYC’s most diverse neighborhoods. Opened three months ago and painted with colorful flowers, the layout features copious outdoor seating on both streets.
As the name suggests, the restaurant concentrates on the michelada, a beverage that mixes beer with chiles, squeezed limes, and tomato juice. While micheladas have long been available at Mexican restaurants, focusing on them is fairly new to New York, though Los Angeles has entire chains of similar establishments. At Michelada House II, there are almost 20 variations on the drink, most served in stout schooners decorated with Mexican flags, paper fruit, straws coated with tamarind paste, and a spice rim known as Tajin — you get the picture, it’s a party in a glass.
Michelada House II is the third and most ambitious restaurant in a chain owned by Jose Luis Diaz, who hails from Mexico City. His first restaurant was Mi Otra Casa, a few blocks south, opened in 2013 and specializes in beverages made with freshly squeezed fruit and Mexico City style snacks. An earlier iteration of Michelada House was located north of JFK, which is now closed.
So of course Alvarez and I sat down in an outdoor shed and ordered micheladas. Patrons are asked to choose a beer to go in their drinks — such is the nuanced nature of the michelada — and we picked a Corona for a tamarind michelada ($10). It came with a cucumber slice and lime wedge splayed on the rim, with a sugar-preserved tamarind pod suspended over the bubbly red surface. The taste was semi-sweet and only slightly resembled a beer.
Other micheladas come in three-foot hurricane glasses or poured into hollowed-out pineapples; some have shrimp hanging on the rim or the creamy yellow berry called nanche skewered on a toothpick. A whole world of micheladas waited to be explored. The food to go with these drinks falls into several categories, including American breakfasts featuring eggs and pancakes; the typical Mexican restaurant food New Yorkers are familiar with (tacos, tortas, enchiladas, and plates with rice and beans); and drinking snacks often served on large platters to be shared. The drinking snacks are worth focusing on, especially since many are hard to find here and they reflect Mexico City’s sensibilities.
The machete mixto is a Mexico City street snack shaped like a cane-cutter’s knife, resembling a narrow quesadilla. At Michelada House II, it’s more of an elongated tostada heaped with chorizo, carnitas, pollo asado, and other grilled meats, crowned with crema, purple onions, queso seco, and cilantro ($28.95). It must be eaten by breaking off little pieces, with a surprise in every bite as you find out what combination of meats are on your chip. (This snack, too, appeared first in LA.)
An even more arresting choice is the torta de chilaquiles ($13.95). Chilaquiles, of course, refers to a meal of tortilla chips tossed with salsa, usually eaten at breakfast, but here this dish is heaped on a telera roll with a breaded and fried cutlet of beef or chicken, and further stuffed with lettuce, cheese, refried beans, and avocado. Once salsa has been applied, this sandwich is heaven, just the kind of starch bomb one craves while drinking beer.
Massive platters of finger foods featuring steamed shrimp, Buffalo chicken wings, dressed French fries, nachos, and chapulines (grasshoppers) are available, but on a subsequent visit, another friend and I ordered grasshopper tacos ($5 each) instead of the platter. The hopping critters, now eerily still, had been soaked in lime juice and toasted, and the flavor was something like a crunchy taco over which one has just squeezed a fresh lime, with plenty of protein and a subtle salty flavor.
Just down the street from Michelada House II is Mariscos El Submarino, which debuted a little over a year ago. It’s open only from breakfast through late afternoon, during which time one can get freshly prepared ceviches, seafood tostadas, fish or shrimp tacos, and an assortment of aguachiles, a sort of soupy seafood ceviche. The logo features an anthropomorphized blue submarine with a black handlebar mustache. The interior is similarly colorful, and high tables with stools encourage one to perch rather than sit. The chef, who once worked in Michoacán, west of Mexico City, prefers to go by a single name, Alonso. He came out of the kitchen to welcome us.
At first the prices seemed high, compared to the seafood ceviche tostada ($7.95) at Los Mariscos in Chelsea Market. But when El Submarino’s ($11) arrived, it was much, much bigger, featuring whole shrimp, squid rings, chunks of fish, and red ripe chiles heaped upon the crisp masa platform, with a slew of toasted tortillas on the side so the oceanic abundance could be subdivided. That seafood was fresh as a maritime breeze.
Still full from our meal at Michelada House II, we ordered one more dish — and it turned out to be even bigger than the tostada. The aguachile negro ($19) arrived sloshing dramatically in a black molcajete, the pumice vessel traditionally used to grind spices and make guacamole. An abundance of raw shrimp, opaqued because of the acidic marinade they were hanging out in, lay awash along with cucumbers in a dark fluid, with an elusive flavor. The dish was so rich, the pair of us could barely finish it, let alone drink the juice, as one is invited to do with an aguachile.
What makes the liquid black? We asked Alonso. His answer surprised us: “A touch of soy sauce,” he said with a smile.