Though great Mexican food has been available in the Jersey City Heights for at least 15 years I never paid much attention, partly because of the relative isolation of the neighborhood — getting there can involve the subway, a PATH ride, and a bus trip — and also because we have so many great Mexican restaurants in places like Corona, East Harlem, and Sunset Park.
But this past Sunday I ventured to the Heights where my editor lives and decided to check out as many Mexican restaurants as possible, sweeping up and down Central Avenue in a three-hour blitz and eating in four places, plus one on parallel Palisade Avenue.
Research had suggested that Oaxacan food — rare in New York City outside of fancy restaurants — would be available, but we ended up finding some amazing dishes from several parts of Mexico.
Los Tres Chilitos
Owners Haydee Gomez and Jose Luis Martinez hail from Oaxaca and opened Los Tres Chilitos, which started out as a food truck, 12 years ago. The dining room is outfitted with sturdy wooden furniture, leading to an order counter opposite a gleaming taco station.
We prioritized the cafe that translates to “three small chiles,” with Day-of-the-Dead figures in the windows, because we’d heard their tamales sell out late morning. Sure enough, tamales were wrapped in banana leaves, Oaxacan style, with pollo mole, pollo verde, and cheese and tomatoes for $3 apiece. We tried all three, with the cheese and tomato our favorite, more moist and rich than the other two, with a trace of chile heat.
It being the weekend, a bowl of pozole ($12.50) was in order, and here we also had a choice of three: white, red, and green, the latter comparatively rare and said to have originated in Guerrero. It had a verdant flavor, but the soup came alive when we crumbled the accompanying tostadas into it. As we were washing it down with cafe de olla flavored with Mexican cinnamon, our last dish arrived: a splendid pambazo, a pressed sandwich of crumbled chorizo and potatoes, planted on a roll that had been soaked with a fragrant red chile sauce. It was irresistible. 456 Central Avenue near Congress Street
Taqueria Restaurant Oaxaca
Taqueria Restaurant Oaxaca is one of those bodegas that transformed itself into a taqueria. Groceries are still stocked, including cookies, flan, chorizos, eggs, and instant michelada mix — paper cup included. The pork and cheese torta is a thing of beauty ($7.50), a long crusty roll slathered with crema and piled high with thin-sliced head cheese, rubbery and garlicky, along with shredded cheese, avocado, lettuce, and onions.
Even more amazing was a dish I’d never seen before. While enfrijoladas are free-form Oaxacan enchiladas with the tortillas first dipped in bean sauce, in entomatadas ($14) the tortillas are folded over twice and smothered in a simple fresh tomato sauce, then squirted with crema. The sauce is the most surprising part, with a slight kick of green chiles, and the tortillas have been lightly fried in lard, so the flavor of the dish is fresh and piggy. A choice of meats comes on the side, but we found ourselves ignoring it since the entomatadas were so good already. 467 Central Avenue, near Congress Street
Despite the name, this taqueria is not a truck. It’s fast casual and the only place we visited that might be at home in, say, the East Village. The menu is limited and inexpensive, dispensed from a shiny counter with shelf seating and a taco prep area. It was a jolly place, but my editor and I missed the longer menus of the previous restaurants with their vast range of dishes.
That said, the taco al pastor ($4), with its careful mince of pineapple and flavorful fragments of meat edged with fat, was damn near perfect, while the birria taco, which we ordered without the add-on charge of $4 for soup, made us wonder how birria tacos, slightly underwhelming on the whole, ever got so popular in the first place. Both came on excellent homemade nixtamalized tortillas. 413 Central Avenue, near Thorne Street
Good as the food had been at the previous eating establishments, we were not prepared for Los Amigos, a big but timeworn space with brightly colored walls, a bar in the corner, and almost no decorations. But flip open the menu and find a litany of fascinating dishes including eggs with hot dogs, tlayudas and tlacoyos, chopped goat, enfrijoladas, flour-tortilla tacos called el hombres, and tacos quillos, subtitled “the famous tacos.”
Like Sinaloan basket tacos, the tortillas in tacos quillos ($13) had been dipped in fat first, then rolled around some very tasty goat barbacoa and caramelized onions. With the dark and oily red salsa provided, these were fantastic, tasting of the barnyard. Another highlight were the memelas, thick hand-patted masa pancakes with ground chorizo on top and a snow of cheese. This was the best of our four meals. 395 Central Avenue, near Bowers Street
This former pizzeria on a quiet corner appears to be many decades old, especially considering the sign around the corner that advertises pizza, hamburgers, empanadas, tamales, and hot dogs — suggesting that there was a market for Mexican and American fast food in the same establishment as early as the 1970s or so.
We went hoping to score a Mexican pizza topped with chorizo, jalapenos, and cilantro, but the woman at the counter told us they weren’t making them anymore, so instead of the tlayudas and tortas that we might have substituted, we ordered a fusion sandwich of pulled pork, black beans, avocado, and onion rings — wacky but delicious. Mike’s is a haunted place, but well worth visiting before it disappears. 602 Palisade Avenue, near Congress Street
Additional reporting by Melissa McCart