New York can’t get enough of Mexico City. As Mexico’s capital surges in popularity as a travel destination for New Yorkers, it’s sparked a wave of inspiration in the five boroughs. There’s La Superior and Casa Pública, which have been anchoring Brooklyn’s Mexican restaurant scene for years, and a handful of newer arrivals that include Aldama, Panzón, Taqueria Ramirez, and La Chilaquería — all of which opened in the last two years and claim to be inspired by Mexico City.
“It’s definitely a center of attention for people opening Mexican restaurants right now,” says Giovanni Cervantes, an owner of Greenpoint’s acclaimed Taqueria Ramirez and a native of Mexico City. Fewer of them have been able to capture the flavors of Mexico’s produce and the liveliness of its restaurants. “It still doesn’t feel like you’re there,” he says.
One restaurant, a churro shop on the Lower East Side, seemed to pull it off when it opened last year — whether its owner intended to or not. The business has been turning heads over to its resemblance to one of Mexico City’s most famous restaurant chains outside of the country, Churrería El Moro, credited with introducing Mexico’s capital to churros when it opened in 1935.
Word of El Churro’s arrival was first reported by EV Grieve, a blog that has been covering news in the East Village and surrounding neighborhoods since 2007. In June, the website shared an image of the churro shop’s sign on the corner of East Houston and Allen streets.
“Guessing this will be a knock-off of Churrería El Moro,” one reader wrote, comparing it to the decades-old churro chain. Beneath the comment, another user replied, “Since Churrería El Moro is in Mexico City and since Manhattan is lamentably short of real churros y chocolate, I for one don’t care if it is a knock-off.”
When El Churro opened the following month, the resemblance was striking: The interior has high ceilings and white walls that look like El Moro’s. The menu, visible behind the counter, is similar, too: In addition to churros, it lists various dipping sauces and cups of hot chocolate. At both businesses, workers make fresh churros in plain view of customers. Every few minutes, they’re pulled out of vats of hot oil and served in white paper bags stamped with the companies’ names: Thin blue letters on a white background in Mexico City. Thin white letters on a blue background on the Lower East Side.
Eli Sterne, the shop’s Israeli owner, claims he had not heard of Churrería El Moro prior to opening El Churro, and he’s never been to Mexico City. He says the shop’s interior was created by a designer based in Spain, whose name and contact information he declined to disclose. He hired them to design a restaurant that was both “Scandinavian” and “minimalistic” but also “futuristic,” he says.
His business has two key differences from El Moro: Its churros cost about four times as much as in Mexico City, and they’re gluten-free. The shop makes them using a blend of coconut, rice, and cassava flours. Sterne is not gluten-free, but he was looking for a way to differentiate himself from the Mexican restaurants and subway vendors already selling churros in New York City. “I had to make it unique,” he says.
Luca Cafasso, a marketing director for Churrería El Moro, told Eater he was not aware of El Churro in an email written in Spanish earlier this month. He confirmed that the two businesses are not affiliated.
According to Sterne, customers at the shop have asked if the business was connected with various churro chains, including Churrería El Moro and a separate churrería based in Argentina. He claims that any similarities between El Churro and those businesses is pure coincidence, comparing his business to restaurants that sell hamburgers, hot dogs, and ice cream.
“There’s only one way to make it,” Sterne says. “What else can you do with that?”