Diners started out in the 19th century as former railroad dining cars repurposed as lunch counters, dropped in vacant lots or on street corners in downtown New York. But they eventually evolved into permanent establishments, some still designed to look like railroad dining cars, only bigger and with no wheels. The greatest growth happened after World War II, when Greek immigrants took over many diners, standardizing and expanding the menus for a half-century, turning them into the commonplace dining institutions we know today.
Though their numbers seem to be dwindling, and their vast menus considered by many to be old-fashioned, diners continue to evolve. Over the last decades, Greek food, like spanakopita and gyros, has been fully incorporated, standing among hamburgers, pancakes, and egg breakfasts on the menu. So has Italian food in that most diners offer a respectable lasagna, and more recently, paninis. As I was reminded last week during a visit to Hector’s Cafe & Diner, open since around 1949 at 44 Little West 12th in the Meatpacking District, Mexican food is also showing up on diner menus, in line with modern American tastes.
A bit of backstory on Hector’s, a diner housed on city-owned land, a business purchased by Danny Manesis in the ‘80s, that has been most known for omelets, fries, burgers, wraps and milkshakes. (No one has had much luck tracking down Hector.) Once inside, Mexican breakfasts flap in the plastic “special” windows that preface the menu, indicating recent additions, including chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, and a breakfast burrito, but I went for the breakfast tacos.
The tacos ($13 for two) were stuffed with scrambled eggs, jack cheese, salsa, and pico de gallo, and I might have stuck with that, except that you could add bacon, ham, or sausage for $3. Naturally, I went with the sausage, and was not particularly surprised to find it was not chorizo or sage breakfast sausage, but Italian sausage. The pair was made with flour tortillas fried into the U-shape I usually associate with hard-shell corn tacos. They were delicious, though fennel was not a flavor I’d expected in Mexican food.
I resolved to eat Mexican food in a diner every day for the rest of the week. The next day I returned to Hector’s to check out the huevos rancheros, even though I’d discovered there were more Mexican dishes photocopied on a sheet of green paper stuck deeper in the menu. It listed fajitas, a Mexican hamburger, fish tacos, and nachos. The huevos rancheros ($15, $18 with bacon) were also atypical, mounted on fried corn tortillas that made them like tostadas and featuring two runny fried eggs and sliced avocado. Nevertheless, I enjoyed them with gusto despite lack of chiles.
The next day, I checked out Three Decker Diner at 695 Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, a long-running diner loved by area residents, right over the Nassau G-train stop. It had recently been taken over by the owner of Variety Coffee I learned, and a Mexican section added to the menu in the process: When Gavin Compton and Eduardo Sandoval bought Three Decker, they nixed the Greek dishes and added Mexican dishes to reflect Sandoval’s El Paso, Texas, roots. Eight dishes were listed on a page titled Tex-Mex Treats, in recognition that these selections were largely adapted and modified from Mexican originals.
I selected a dish called Cortez taco night ($11.75 for three): They were of the hard shell variety and filled with ground beef scented with chili powder such as is used to make chili con carne — an ingredient ubiquitous in the Lone Star State but less often seen here.
The next day I went back and tried something more daring: pastrami nachos ($13.75). These were constructed in layers, so no picture of the finished product could quite reveal their meticulous structure. The chips were recently fried, the black beans nicely tender, the jack cheese flowing freely, though the pico was a little tired on this occasion. Still, the swatches of fatty pastrami nicely enlivened the whole thing, adding smoky and salty notes. Nice fusion, Three Decker! They’re making something you really could call New York nachos.
My final diner visit was perhaps the most mind-boggling. I sought out Bel Aire Diner way west on Broadway at 31-91 21st Street in Astoria, a massive chrome affair with a 1950s hot rod theme. In many ways, its Mexican menu was the most sophisticated, represented by a page called South of the Border. In it were chimichangas, a chorizo torta, shrimp fajitas, and a carnitas bowl. As I sat in my booth, with a pair of seasoned session musicians at the next table talking about playing on a Rolling Stones album, an imaginary imp sat on my shoulder and whispered “double stuffed giant burrito” ($30).
I’ll cut to the chase: it turned out to be a pair of giant flour tortillas annealed together with cheese and stuffed with steak, chicken, rice, bell peppers, and a half dozen other ingredients. It was way too mellow for me, though the bottled chile sauce, crema, and Peruvian green hot sauce (!) on the side encouraged me to dip every bite. I did, and it was fine, just not worth $30, and need I tell you I only ate half? If, size matters, and you’re not fond of spicy food, this burrito may loom in your future.