Over the last decade, New York City has become rich in regional Mexican fare. One of the most recent cuisines to arrive was that of Sinaloa, a state that lies across the Gulf of California from the Baja peninsula. Some of the cuisine’s signature dishes are also found in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and parts of West Texas, representing food associated with the Sonoran Desert, which straddles the border between the United States and Mexico.
NYC’s latest showcase of Sinaloan food is Cielito Astoria, a divey but elegant cocktail lounge that opened last summer on busy 36th Avenue. Outlined in blue neon that glows late into the night, it boasts a foliage-bedecked bench where couples like taking pictures, and a decorative motif featuring skeletons, red roses, and brass rails inside. Sinaloan banda music from outfits like Grupo Firme and Grupo Diez 4tro thrumps from an unseen sound system. Alex Arias, the manager and a veteran restaurateur, and Sinaloan chef América Rodriguez have concocted the broadest menu of Sinaloan food the city has yet seen.
Many of these dishes first hit Queens in November 2017 under the tracks of the 7 train in the little square formed by Roosevelt and Elmhurst avenues. Taqueria Sinaloense had a taco counter in the window up front, and a huge brown map of Mexico with the state of Sinaloa popping out in green spreading across one wall.
Standards of Sinaloan cuisine offered there included chilorio (pork simmered in chile sauce till it falls apart, then fried a second time in lard) and machaca (dried beef often scrambled with eggs). It also featured other Sinaloan dishes then relatively unique to New York, including beef birria served as a consomé, and a pair of tacos of crunchy grasshoppers and poached shrimp laved in oil.
The owner, Elvía Castelán, was a native of Puebla also involved in Roosevelt Avenue’s Tacos Veloz chain. But her family also had roots in Sinaloa, and she had always wanted to open a restaurant featuring the state’s unique food. Castelán hired América Rodriguez as chef, who hailed from the town of El Rosario in southern Sinaloa. She’d worked in the legal profession and never cooked in a professional kitchen, but Rodriguez did inherit a slew of recipes from her mother.
At first, Taqueria Sinaloense had trouble attracting customers, since chilorio, birria, and machaca were virtually unknown in New York City at the time, and the smattering of Pueblan dishes offered (huaraches, al pastor tacos, and tacos placeros) were already available at dozens of other restaurants, carts, and window taquerias in the immediate vicinity. The place closed not quite a year later.
By early 2020, América Rodriguez reappeared at Mi Dulce Mexico, a bright corner panaderia in North Corona. In addition to its colorful display of pan dulce in a bank of plastic cases, it mounted an adjacent steam table with taco fixings. But a black bulletin board on one wall displayed colorful dayglo tags with daily specials — an ever-changing assortment of dishes concocted by Rodriguez. The now-familiar chilorio, porky beans, and machaca with eggs on a platter with rice or in a taco were all included, but she had added further items, not only from Sinaloa but from Baja and Tijuana, too.
The aguachiles — giant oblong platters of shrimp awash in a piquant red or green salsa and shingled with avocado slices — were the most spectacular new offering, but there were also classic Bajan fried-fish tacos, now available all over town. And a version of Tijuana beef birria, a dish that had recently exploded in popularity via Birria-Landia, emphasized the consomé, serving it with a stack of already dipped tortillas on the side for a DIY taco feast.
This edition of Mi Dulce was sadly short lived, and Rodriquez departed a few weeks later. She was gone from the food scene for a year before she reappeared again, if only briefly, at Cielito Astoria. There she provided recipes and kitchen guidance for Arias, who grew up in the Sinaloan capital of Culiacán. He has partial interest in other restaurants serving Mexican and Peruvian food — and indeed there are a few Andean touches on the menu at Cielito, such as a giant grilled octopus tentacle served with chorizo aioli, minted pistachio sauce, and acai berry mayo.
In one of two outdoor pavilions, a friend and I enjoyed a Mazatlan-style red aguachile ($21) featuring shrimp and octopus served in a volcano-stone molcajete with slices of cucumber, avocado, and lightly pickled purple onions. It was one of four ceviches available, including another of mixed seafood called levanta muertos (“zombie animator,” $22) that was much spicier, advertised as an aphrodisiac akin to Peruvian leche de tigre.
Next arrived chilorio tacos ($14), three to an order on flour tortillas with an incendiary green salsa on the side. Here, in observance of the taco format, the porky beans had been slathered on the tortillas before the chilorio was profusely applied, combining two dishes usually separated, though the beans got lost in the mix of flavors.
The machaca tacos ($15), the shredded meat interspersed with a micro-scramble of eggs, was another highlight, an abstract painting in brown flecked with red tomatoes and bright yellow eggs, while the birria service was perfection itself — really quesabirria, since the flour tortillas came dripping with melted white cheese. But there were other Sinaloan antojitos, too, such as tacos gobernador (shrimp with green chiles, guacamole, and cheese) and tacos canasta (“basket tacos” coated with oil as a preservative, so they may be taken on a picnic or sold from a basket on the beach).
Presenting Sinaloan food in a cocktail lounge has its advantages, as opposed to the eat-and-run ambiance of a taqueria or panaderia. The cocktails, 19 in number, mainly deploy tequila and mezcal. Of the ones I tried, my favorite was the mezcalita de tepache ($17), the latter term referring to a beverage made from fermented pineapple skins and brown sugar sold by street vendors in northern Mexico. Here it makes an excellent cocktail, and the bartender might give you a small snifter of straight-up tepache on the side as a chaser — definitely something you’re not likely to get in a taqueria, and a bright contrast to the earthier flavors of chilorio and machaca.