Big Things Are Happening in NYC’s Supposed Mexican Food Wasteland

If you eat a meal at La Morada in the Bronx and ask for Doña Natalia, a robust, friendly woman will walk out of the kitchen, sit down at your table and share her story, assuming you speak Spanish.

It’s not just any story. Natalia Mendez arrived to New York City from Oaxaca in 1990 with little more than her clothes. She and her husband, farmers in Mexico, opened the restaurant in 2009 after the economic downturn nearly forced them into bankruptcy. They named the restaurant for the thatched-roof huts in the Oaxacan countryside where farmers would eat lunch, seek shelter from the elements, and share food and wisdom.

Making a mole requires expertly navigating tiny details that can’t be taught on paper. How smooth do you grind the sauce? How long do you toast the chiles?

La Morada’s menu offers much of the typical New York Mexican fare—tacos, tortas, quesadillas. But the moles, which Mendez grew up cooking and eating in Ahuehuetitlán, Oaxaca, are the reason to visit. The moles aren’t made from pastes. That means that in every pot of the rust-colored mole oaxaqueño, for instance, the chiles are plucked from a large gray tub then toasted by hand on the flat-top. After a whiz in the blender with some toasted nuts and spices, and time bubbling on the stove, the sauce becomes harmonious and shape-shifting with each bite.

Making a mole requires expertly navigating tiny details that can’t be taught on paper. How smooth do you grind the sauce? How long do you toast the chiles? When is the sauce actually done? Mendez gauges these elements herself. When she gathers the toasted chiles into her hands, they fall through her fingers and sound like crinkling paper, which, she says, is exactly how they should sound.

“I’ve fallen into the good graces of the people of New York,” says Mendez, whose smile and positive attitude give little hint of her challenging past. “We’ve made a lot of friends. And to have this restaurant, how could I not give it the best of myself?”

New York City, traditionally, has a terrible reputation for Mexican food. Part of this is warranted; a lot of the Mexican food in New York still isn’t very good, for reasons including the Mexican population being fairly recent arrivals, the perception that the food should be cheap, and the fact that many people, both customers and cooks, aren’t aware of how regional and complex Mexican cooking can be. New Yorkers who have tasted great Mexican food constantly compare it to another city with deeper Mexican ties—Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago. Those other cities surely have their own insecurities, but that sense of culinary entitlement that exists in New York might be unique to us. We pay an awful lot of money to live here. We have vibrant Mexican neighborhoods in Bushwick, the Bronx, Sunset Park, and Corona, and access to more Mexican ingredients than we ever did before. Why can’t we have excellent Mexican food?

The truth is, it does exist here, and the tide seems to be growing stronger. A handful of Mexican restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn are starting to grind their own corn masa in-house, some using heirloom corn imported from Mexico. (This replaces the flavorless, slightly sour-smelling packaged corn tortillas most city taquerías use.) Chefs and owners are taking more risks with their menus, moving past tortas and tacos to focus on creative homestyle dishes that even two years ago would’ve been difficult to find. Tacombi, a local chain, recently opened a Bleecker Street location that sells Yucatecan favorites including panuchos and sopa de lima. Amaranto in Bushwick offers a sublime huitlacoche tamal, earthy and drenched in seafood-infused chilpachole sauce. One New York City Mexican restaurant, Casa Enrique, now has a Michelin star. Enrique Olvera’s Cosme, which opened in 2014, may not be too far behind.

Cosme’s menu is unlike anything else in New York, combining Mexican ingredients and local, seasonal ones to create an entirely new genre that feels sophisticated, fresh and new. The most current menu features an ayocote bean salad with charred cucumber vinaigrette; spelt esquites with corn, epazote, and castelrosso cheese, and burrata with pasilla mixe salsa and “weeds.”

At $19-$69 per shareable plate, it’s the most expensive Mexican restaurant in the city. For the quality and sophistication of the food, however, and the Flatiron location, it’s a relative deal. The restaurant also grinds its own masa in-house using heirloom Mexican corn provided by Masienda, a small, independent outfit based in the United States that sources corn directly from Mexican farmers.

“The overwhelming reaction has been fantastic,” Olvera said in an email. “Of course there are people that don´t get it entirely, but hopefully the smell and taste of the tortillas will convince them otherwise.”

Dario Wolos, a Monterrey native who opened the first Tacombi in New York in 2010, says he hesitated a little to focus on Yucatecan food, which most locals aren’t familiar with. But the result has been positive, both with his customers and staff. Most of Tacombi’s kitchen staff hails from Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Puebla, and they’d never been to Yucatán before.

“They weren’t familiar with the panuchos, salbutes, recados that are typical of that region,” Wolos says. “For us it was an interesting thing to share the story of Mexico with other Mexicans.”

Dos Caminos, a New York-based Mexican food chain with a newly opened flagship in Times Square, last year purchased a stone-ground corn mill to nixtamalize and grind masa across all their restaurants. They also source their corn from Masienda, like Tacombi and Cosme.

Corporate Executive Chef Ivy Stark, who started with Dos Caminos in 2002 and before that worked at New York’s Rosa Mexicano, says they’re responding to customer demand. The mill grinds about 700 pounds of masa a day.

“We used to get a lot of comments at the beginning — ‘you’re not Mexican, you don’t serve fajitas,’ or ‘you don’t serve nachos’,” Stark says. “The popularity of Latin cuisine has just grown everywhere. That’s led to more authentic and better ingredients being available.”

In a basement kitchen in Brooklyn, chef Denisse Lina Chavez, a Puebla native, has emphatic opinions about local Mexican food, which she shared with me recently while she hacked a raw chicken into pieces. Chávez ran the critically acclaimed El Atoradero in the Bronx until it closed in the spring of 2015; a few months later, a group of young restaurateurs recruited her to open a new location of the same name in Prospect Heights.

You can taste her dedication in items like the pipián rojo, a bright, hot mix of ground dried chiles with a lush undercurrent of ground peanuts, and the lengua in salsa verde, pieces of tender beef tongue bathed in a sharp, perfectly seasoned green tomatillo sauce.

At the new El Atoradero, Chávez is fanatical about making her guisados, or home-style stewed dishes, from scratch, and sourcing her ingredients as closely to Mexico as possible. She travels to Passaic, New Jersey to buy Mexican blue corn for her masa. She’ll pay extra for Mexican hierbas de olor, a bundle of Mexican bay leaves, oregano, thyme and marjoram. You can taste her dedication in items like the pipián rojo, a bright, hot mix of ground dried chiles with a lush undercurrent of ground peanuts, and the lengua in salsa verde, pieces of tender beef tongue bathed in a sharp, perfectly seasoned green tomatillo sauce.

Chávez nixtamalizes and grinds her own corn masa using a small stone-ground mill purchased in Jalisco. She presses out all tortillas herself. (Our table received three of these warm, blue discs at a time on a recent visit and they were wolfed down immediately.)

Chávez says the biggest problem with local Mexican food is that Mexican cooks aren’t educated about their own cuisine. They rely too much on pre-flavored seasoning packets and bet that no one will taste the difference.

“Everyone’s a cook. They say, ‘We’re going to open a restaurant because white people are stupid and they’ll eat anything.’ They say authentic Mexican food. And when they open, and you try the food, it’s shit,” Chavez says. “This is what I want people to understand. I want them to know the reality. People think, I have money and I’m going to open a Mexican restaurant. No. To cook you have to have love and passion.”

It’s true that some New Yorkers are still educating themselves about Mexican cuisine. On visits to a half-dozen Mexican places in January, I overheard customers ordering burritos at excellent home-style restaurants (once at La Morada, while I swooned over the mole), and watched waiters patiently explain to customers what lengua, tinga, and huauzontles were. Other challenges exist here, too: high rents; tiny kitchens; a lingering perception that Mexican food should be cheap, which means most restaurateurs don’t have the money to buy quality ingredients or to invest in items like a stone-ground corn mill. Newly arrived immigrant workers—most Mexicans in New York arrived between 1990 and 2010, according to a 2013 CUNY study—may also not choose cooking because they love it, but because they need a job to survive.

Scarlett Lindeman, a cook and sociologist who’s written about New York’s Mexican food scene for The Village Voice and is writing her doctoral dissertation on the topic, said the city’s tough lifestyle also contributes to whether we as customers declare a restaurant delicious or not.

“Eating ‘good’ food or having an exceptional food experience is so much more than the actual food on the plate—it’s the light, the route you took to get there, the sounds, the smells, and the memory of the experiences you have had before,” Lindeman said in an email. “I think that often Mexican food, so tied to family, memory, nostalgia, isn’t what you want it to be in NYC for the exact reason that it’s not Mexico, it’s not LA. You have to travel on a crowded, smelly subway, 50 minutes to get there, in sleeting rain and loud trains overhead. We want the food to be good, and when it isn’t, it feels like even more of a let down.”

Noor Shikari and Luis Dávila opened Cítrico in Prospect Heights in 2014, aiming to serve interpretations of items Luis knew and loved growing up in Tlaxcala, Mexico. A large map drawn in chalk of Mexico’s central states sits above the kitchen, along with translations of Spanish-language food words with Nahuatl roots.

Shikari says they drew some blank stares off their menu, which has items like oxtail in pasilla chile salsa and beets with mole. But once she started explaining how things tasted and whether they were spicy or not, that helped tremendously.

“There are still people who say no, I want my taco salad, or my burrito bowl,” Shikari says.

Dávila says they get all kinds of customers. “There are people who aren’t ready, and there are people who are, who want more, who want to try things that they’ve never tried before. It’s running that risk to say yes, those kinds of people are going to come.”

Perhaps the future of Mexican food in New York means catering to more than one population in a city where so many diverse ethnicities live so closely together. El Rico Tinto in Jackson Heights has done brisk business, particularly at brunch, with a menu that combines Mexican and Colombian food. (Think calentado with huevos con chorizo). The owners are three brothers from Atlixco, Puebla. Victor Gonzalez works the front of the house, Fernándo is the chef, and Jesús makes Colombian and Mexican sweet bread and pastries.

Cheery and casual, the place perfectly encapsulates the middle-class neighborhood, drawing families, artists, writers, Spanish-speakers and non-Spanish speakers.

“Here, you give a white customer the menu and they already know Mexican food. They know huevos rancheros, huevos con chorizo,” says Gonzalez. “They haven’t known about the Colombian food — what’s calentado, what’s an arepa. We’re trying to do a fusion of those two things.”

Wolos of Tacombi says the future of Mexican food in New York might be looking inward into a restaurant’s own kitchens. Tacombi’s immigrant workers can be timid about contributing their own ideas on how the food should taste, and they remain a huge untapped resource, he says.

“They have this incredible wealth of experiences, from how they got here, to what they experienced back home in Mexico. It’s about opening the door to them so they can share their feelings through this food.”