That old saw about New York City having no good Mexican food is outdated. Nearly a third of New York’s eight and a half million residents are Latino, and while Puerto Rican- and Dominican-Americans outnumber Mexican-American New Yorkers, the city’s Mexican population jumped by 57 percent between 2000 and 2007 alone. Many hail from the southern Mexican states of Puebla, Oaxaca, and Guerrero, sometimes known as the “Mixteca” region, and that recent wave of immigrants in particular has made its mark on the city’s restaurants, from cheap taco shops to some of its finest high-end spots.
So if your last trip to NYC was 10 years ago, and you’ve been griping about its dearth of good tacos ever since, take heart: This town has got you covered. Chef Denisse Lina Chavez and Noah Arenstein co-own new Brooklyn restaurant El Atoradero. Chavez, who hails from a Pueblan village in Mexico, is known for her al pastor and mole poblano, and learned to cook from her grandmother. She is “very measured in her praise for other Mexican restaurants,” laughs Arenstein, but he was able to eke out her picks. Combined with his own love of Mexican food in all five outer boroughs (which he digs into at least once a week), their picks—from tamales in Queens to tacos in the Bronx to churros in good old Manhattan—form a tempting snapshot of the booming Mexican food scene.
The original El Atoradero was located in the Bronx, and Chavez remains loyal to tongue tacos at Jalisco Tacos, a bare-bones neighborhood spot. Arenstein is smitten with the adobada (marinated pork) taco at Los Tacos #1 in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market, nestled under the High Line.
Although Pueblan mole poblano is relatively easy to find in New York—though not always done well—Oaxacan molés, that region’s specialty, are much more difficult to find. At La Morada, a well-reviewed Bronx restaurant, the subtle, difficult-to-make mole negro makes a cameo alongside emerald-hued mole verde and mole Oaxaqueño, which Arenstein likes for its spicy, slightly bitter notes of cinnamon, clove, and tobacco. (Ask for the off-menu, super-rare mole blanco, too.)
Stay put! The above mentioned La Morada’s enchiladas—thanks to those epic molés—are simply fabulous, says Arenstein.
Tamales are ho-hum unless they’re super-fresh. At Brooklyn’s Myrtle-Wyckoff stop (a hub of various delicious street carts), one can often spy a woman selling tamales from a small cart. She’s at the far east side of the intersection, and an easy ride on the L train from Manhattan. Ask for pollo verde (green chicken) and rojo (red) tamales. And be quick! She vanishes by around noon.
These “breakfast nachos” employ tortillas that are going stale. Done well, they’re a delight. Arenstein likes the “not too soggy” carne enchilada with salsa verde rendition at Brooklyn’s Taqueria Cocoyoc.
Tortas, the beloved Mexican sandwiches that—when you’re lucky—are the size of your head, are done right up in Corona, Queens, at a little place called Juan Bar. The gentleman from the Tortas Neza truck, once parked on Roosevelt Avenue, makes tortas “the size of a bowling ball!” exclaims one happy customer. Go for Tortas Pumas, a combo torta, or chorizo-and-egg.
Stick around Juan Bar, says Arenstein, because the torta genius there makes the best whole-hog carnitas he’s had in the city.
Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails
Chavez likes her tequila and mezcal “very dry,” and finds them at Casa Mezcal in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Arenstein prefers nearby La Contenta, which offers pulque in addition to “the best Michelada I’ve had in the city, with cucumber juice—it really, really works.”