I’m a So Cal girl, born and raised just a mere stone’s throw from East Los Angeles no less, and thus, take my Mexican food very seriously. I’ve come to discover over the last several years since I moved to Manhattan that much to my shock and dismay, an abundance of good and cheap Mexican eats does not necessarily exist.
Hispanic/Latino culture is obviously thriving in New York City. They comprise nearly 30% of the city’s population, according to the 2010 census but the enclaves of Mexican food and culture that exist in the outer boroughs have been pushed out of Manhattan.
My first couple foodie forays, to what certain friends (who shall remain nameless) deemed as “the best Mexican restaurant,” left me rather broken-hearted. $14 guacamole? No handmade tortillas? No fish tacos? Can someone please make me a decent mole?!
Thankfully, I was sent on a mission by Tasting Table to photograph Tehuitzingo (695 10th Ave., between 47th & 48th St.), a little joint in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen that serves amazing, authentic Mexican food out of a hole in the wall in the back of a grocery store. And by a hole in the wall, I mean, you head all the way to the back, past the glass cases of traditional ingredients (piles of cactus, cilantro, rainbows of peppers, & home made cheeses); through a narrow mirrored seating area with less than a dozen stools, lit bright neon green by the cerveza signs overhead; to a literal hole in the wall, where-in two senoritas wait to take your order in one muy pequena cocina. They’ve got some slightly unusual ingredients on the menu, like goat, tongue, and tripe, for more adventurous eaters. I opted for one pollo and one carne asada taco, which came simply topped with diced tomatoes, onion, and cilantro. A variety of bottled hot sauces adorn the counters, to add your own brand of spice. The first bite instantly transported my palate and sense memory right back home. I couldn’t stop at two and quickly ordered another, blissful in the knowledge that I’d found an answer to my comida cravings after all. Tehuizingo is a funky little gem, serving up real Mexican flavors, in a no frills setting, where one can easily walk out stuffed for less than $10. It’s a great spot for a weekday lunch with co-workers, a quick bite when you’re on the go, or a late night snack, when in Midtown.
Faith restored, I dared to try Mexican restaurants in New York City once again, and soon discovered several surprisingly delicious joints along the way. Here’s my carefully curated short list, just in time for your Cinco de Mayo festivities:
Dos Toros Taqueria — 137 4th Avenue; 11 Carmine Street
Dos Toros is to NYC, what Poquito Mas is to LA. It’s not fast food. It’s really good, fresh food, served fast. There’s usually a long line (actually a good sign), but it moves fast as they’ve got their system down to a science. It can be tricky to find a seat, but people don’t tend to linger either. They’ve got the standard fare – tacos and burritos with your choice of chicken, carne asada, or carnitas – being the most popular. Quesadillas, tostadas, and platos con arroz y frijoles round out the rest of the menu. I’m a creature of habit when it comes to this place and always go for the carne asada burrito with guacamole. Everything is made to order just the way you like it and typically comes with a heaping portion of crispy tortilla chips. Their prices are cheap by New York standards. The portions are quite filling and delicious. I also give them props for their sustainable business practices. They make a point of letting customers know that their chicken is locally raised with no hormones or antibiotics; their produce is locally sourced; and that they compost, recycle, and use non-toxic products.
Tacombi — 267 Elizabeth Street, between Prince & Houston; in Chelsea Market, W 15th Street, between 9th & 10th Avenue
Tacombi’s tacos make me so happy I could cry. They simply explode with layers of undeniable flavor and spice. The “barbacoa” — shredded beef cooked in a red chile sauce — is a must eat, go-to favorite of mine. That’s until I bite into a “pollo verde” — shredded white meat chicken in a mild green chile sauce — and lose my mind with delight. Their fish tacos, either fried in a crispy beer batter or seared, topped with red cabbage and creamy pepper sauce, are sure fire winners, as is the shrimp taco, prepared in one devilishly spicy sauce that seriously kicks. You must get one of their fresh “agua” concoctions to wash it all down. The hibiscus tea and watermelon juice aguas are refreshing and not too sweet. I actually love mixing the two brews together. Not to worry, they sell beer by the bottle too.
Tacombi has a cute little “tacobike” cart set up at Chelsea Market, in the 15th Street Arcade, which is perfect for a quick bite at lunchtime or a mid-afternoon snack. You may have to fight the hoards for a seat at one of the indoor tables though. Better yet, since it is street food, that’s often where I’ll eat, on a nearby bench or up on The High Line, for a picnic overlooking the Hudson River.
The ambience of Tacombi’s Nolita location is loads of fun. Their sky lit, open warehouse is home to a bonafide 1970’s VW bus that’s been converted into their taco serving station. Peek through the bubble window as they warm your tortillas on the grill and assemble your taco with all the fixings. The space is filled with cream-colored metal folding tables, painted with red checker/chess boards on top. Kitschy 60’s surf films screen on the walls, and the vibe is upbeat, yet relaxed. It’s a slice of Playa del Carmen or Baja, right in the heart of Lower Manhattan.
Hecho en Dumbo — 354 Bowery, between E 3rd & Great Jones St
Hecho’s reputation for killer cocktails is what initially drew me. Their food solidified it as a real contender for this list. We walked in sans reservations, late one Saturday afternoon, and were able to nab those prime seats at the end of the bar, right in the front window. The bartender was very friendly and knowledgeable, helping steer us towards a Tres Vidas (smoked chile, bell pepper, lime & mezcal) and a Margarita Tamarindo (tequila blanco, fresh squeezed tamarind juice, and chile piquin rim). Both were spicy, yet refreshing, stiff, quality cocktails. Instead of sitting down for dinner, we stayed perched at the bar, for optimal people watching and several small plate antojitos – short rib steak tacos topped with diced onion and cilantro, queso fundido with fresh salsa and warm flour tortillas, and a tuna sashimi tostada – perfect choices for a leisurely afternoon or happy hour. I love that they use all locally sourced and organic ingredients, and make all the fundamental components of their dishes, fresh in-house. You can definitely taste it.
Word has it that this place gets pretty packed and noisy for dinner, but they recently started offering a 5-course chef’s table menu, which seems to me perhaps the best way to experience Chef Danny Mena’s skills. Parties of two only are seated at the back counter, peering straight into the open kitchen. The menu highlights fresh seafood and local meats, prepared in cherished, traditional Mexican style, for a reasonable prix fixe of $55. It’s available by booking online only via their website or at Open Table. You heard it here first, amigo. De nada.
Hell’s Kitchen — 679 Ninth Ave, between W 46th & 47th St.
I had the rare pleasure of indulging in a 7-course chef’s tasting menu at Hell’s Kitchen recently that put all other past experiences of Mexican cuisine to shame. Chef Jorge Parilla pulled out all stops to give us a taste of his hometown of Alpoyeca, Mexico and his most cherished family recipes. We kicked off the feast crunching tri-colored crispy corn tortilla chips, served with not one, but 3 distinctive types of guacamole, which we paired with a classic margarita a casa. We were then treated to another series of ‘pequenos trios’: First, 3 golden empanadas, each with their own incredible sauce to match — roasted pork with crema fresca and salsa, duck en mole with pico de gallo, and huitlacoche truffle and mascarpone cheese with salsa verde. Then, 3 pillowy maize tostadas — tiger shrimp, ground pork, and carne asada — drizzled with salsa verde. Perfect little bites! Next, the chef utterly captured my heart with his traditional pasole – a hominy and pork stew, topped with avocado and fried leeks, cooked with such love, it warmed my belly and soul. It’s an unforgettably comforting bowl of goodness that would make any hangover run for the hills. As if that wasn’t enough, we then dove into 3 huge entrees — roasted lamb shanks with cilantro mashed potatoes, tamarind rubbed grilled sirloin with fresh vegetables in an endive-pasilla sauce, and pan seared sea bass with sweet plantain puree — all cooked to perfection.
We sipped on a Hell’s-Ma-rita, with fresh tamarind and lime juice in an ancho-salt rimmed glass, and a Watermelon Mint Lemonade, as Chef Parilla chatted with us about his inspirations. He was so humble, sharing stories about his food, an expression of passion for his land and close-knit familia. Eating this meal felt like a privilege and an honor. The food was not only one of the best meals I’ve had in recent memory, but Chef Parilla’s dishes are some of the most colorfully creative, genuinely artistic plates around. I can say with total and utter confidence that Hell’s Kitchen is the best Mexican restaurant in New York City. Hands down, period, the end. Vamanos immediamente!
I’d be remiss not to mention a couple of other spots that serve up some signature cocteles that make for a mighty fine siesta:
El Camion Cantina and Tepito are terrific East Village joints for margarita happy hours. They both serve up great classic margaritas as well as some really tasty fruity margaritas, my favorite being passion fruit, pomegranate, raspberry, or hibiscus. They all go down way too easy, and for a mere $5, why not sample them all? I’d recommend the margaritas in lieu of the food at both of these places, though the meals that I had at each were good.
Yerba Buena, however, serves up some really special cocktails, not to be missed. Their Piquito Picante is probably one of my favorite cocktails in NYC. It’s an intoxicating concoction of gin, jalapeÃƒ ±o infused cointreau, cilantro, cucumber, and lemon juice that strikes a perfect balance of spicy and cool, and smells like pure heaven. I also love The Desert Rose, made with dried rose infused gin, prickly pear puree, and lemon juice. In all seriousness, there’s no bad call on this cocktail menu. Imbibing here is a bad habit waiting to happen because you want to try every single offering. The bartender and host are also easy on the eyes and fantastically cool gentlemen to boot. I can’t speak to the food, yet, as I’ve only been for drinks at the bar, but the place is always packed, and the restaurant is a beautifully designed, intimate, warmly lit space. Yerba is easy to overlook from Avenue A, but swing open the door and you’ve stepped into one sexy space that plays that sophisticated, but not overly so, note just right. It’s a great, laid back place to bring that date you want to impress. Lucky for you, they’re offering a special Cinco de Mayo menu. ¡Disfruta la fiesta!
Welcome to our new Untapped column, Eye for Style by Carly Caryn, a New York-based photographer, artist and writer. Carly spent a decade photo documenting architectural historic preservation projects and wardrobe/prop styling for print & TV in Los Angeles. Carly will be sharing her best picks in the New York culinary, cultural and style worlds.
As soon as it appeared in my inbox, I knew this adventure would be right up my alley. The folks at Urban Oyster Tours had kindly invited me for lunch and a 3-hour tour of Brooklyn, to explore where its culinary and agricultural worlds collide. Frankly, they had me at hello with “experience the entire farm-to-table journey of my food” and seduced with promises of taking me straight to the heart of Brooklyn’s most unique food destinations, to sample and speak with the creative entrepreneurs behind them. Twist my arm? Not likely.
To my surprise, not only was the tour destined to be chock full of local artisanal eats, but we had multiple guides for the day – Bob Lewis (local historian, founder of NYC Greenmarkets, and Special Assistant at NY State Agriculture & Markets), David Naczycz and Cindy VandenBosch (founders of Urban Oyster), and Caylin Sanders (founder of local travel web portal, EscapeMaker.com). Each were a veritable wealth of information about Brooklyn’s myriad riches — its food and architecture; neighborhoods, people, and cultural traditions; agriculture and urban planning initiatives – past and present.
We met up at Skylight One Hanson, one jaw-dropping landmark of art deco magnificence, perhaps better known as the former Williamsburg Savings Bank, and current winter home of the Brooklyn Flea. As we jitneyed to our first destination, we got the scoop on what Urban Oyster is all about.
“The name comes from the legend that New York Harbor once contained half the world’s oysters. Over time though, most of the beds died off due to pollution and over-consumption,” David explained. “Like oysters, the neighborhoods of New York are treasured resources that require nurturing in order to survive and flourish. We seek to reveal the hidden pearls of this great city – the neighborhoods, people, and businesses that are uniquely New York. We aim to connect people to these special places through their stories and history, in an effort to support and value local production, consumption, cultural diversity, historic preservation, and sustainability for the benefit of generations to come.”
Given my unbridled obsession with New York’s local food & drink culture, coupled with my family’s business of historic preservation, such excursions are tailor-made for culinary architecture geeks like me. I ventured repeatedly to Smorgasburg and New Amsterdam Market last summer, both weekend outdoor markets where you can snap up local artisanal goods, fresh produce and ingredients, and literally sample everything under the sun, as you chat directly with the people who make the things you’re eating, in picturesque locales along either side of the East River.
And Urban Oyster Tours are another opportunity to do the exact same thing. They take you straight to the cooks’ kitchen and give you a comprehensive history lesson mise en place. They offer a variety of expertly crafted outings — “Eat Like a Local” through Cobble and Boerum Hill; “Food Carts” of Lower Manhattan; “Immigrant Foodways” in Williamsburg; and their most popular “Brewed in Brooklyn” and “Craft Beer Crawl” which combine a lesson in local beer making techniques with the best part – tasting! Sip your IPA, on the site it was made, while you chat up the brewer? That’s refreshingly rare.
You can get on board with regularly scheduled tours or arrange a private tour of your own. Either or, it’s an entertaining way to show your out-of-town guests how the natives do it, and for locals, it’s a delicious opportunity to broaden one’s horizons and learn more about the vast expanse of your own backyard. It’s so easy to become a creature of habit in your own city and re-visit the same old haunts time after time, but these tours can provide a fresh perspective to the same old stomping grounds, pointing out places you might otherwise miss.
If you’ve lived in the New York City during the last five years and have even a mild interest in food culture, chances are you’ve participated in the endless debate as to which borough is the true epicenter of culinary arts – Manhattan or Brooklyn? Manhattan certainly makes a compelling case for itself, as farm-to-table restaurants from celebrity chefs like Dan Barber, Dan Kluger, David Bouley, and Mike Price steadily increase in popularity and urban rooftop farm initiatives gain steam. Brooklyn is a venerable mecca for foodies in its own right though, and many would simply argue it’s the borough that represents the best of New York City food culture, period.
It’s certainly where the small batch, artisanal, locally made, grown, and sourced movement has sunk its deepest roots at present. While Manhattan is the birthplace of Occupy Wall Street, Brooklyn is at the epicenter of another social revolution — locavorism — and is pro-actively re-positioning itself as the food and agro-tourism destination you must visit. Great strides are being made in just about every neighborhood enclave to return to their roots of food cultivation and production. There’s been a virtual explosion of urban gardening and community revitalization projects, such as The Brooklyn Grange, Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, Added Value, and the recently announced Brightfarms in Sunset Park. all of which are committed to getting people re-invested in their communities and the joys of volunteerism.
The first stop on our BK Foodways tour was Moore Street Market, one of the few remaining public markets designed during the LaGuardia era as a sanitary alternative to the pushcart vending culture prevalent during the early turn of the century. Our guides provided us with a comprehensive history of the market, complete with historic photographs and fascinating anecdotes, painting a picture of then and now, as well as briefing us on the upcoming urban planning improvements, including a landscaped outdoor public plaza on Humboldt Street, scheduled for completion in Summer 2013. We walked around the market’s interior, meeting several of the long time vendors who treated us to homemade horchata, corn pupusas, and a special tea remedy, made from ingredients native to her family’s homeland in Pueblo, Mexico.
Then, it was off to Roberta’s Pizza for lunch. Housed in an unassuming cinder block structure, with zero curb appeal in an industrial section of East Williamburg, we entered to discover an enormous wood-burning oven as the centerpiece of their open kitchen, which we later learned literally took the slow boat from Italy to Brooklyn. The place is super rustic, with long picnic tables and benches; a small wood bar with a bevy of local beers and clever cocktail menu scrawled on the chalkboard overhead; and an enclosed outdoor patio heated by a wood-burning furnace, that stares directly into the Heritage Radio Network station which broadcasts 24/7. The crowd is very, well, Brooklyn — local locals, each with their own signature mustache or coiffed beard, complimenting their casual vintage wear and quirky-rimmed glasses. I watched the process, as they hand fire our pizzas to bubbly perfection, then topped with veg grown in their roof top garden (or at the nearby BK Grange) and meats sourced at the local butcher shop. We sat down to the communal table, first devouring the fresh margherita, then several more mouthwatering kale and homemade Berkshire sausage pies. A heaven you’d never know existed”¦
Then, we traveled to over to Brooklyn Winery, a beautiful space in the heart of Williamsburg, utilizing re-purposed wood, recycled furniture, found objects and memorabilia to create one warm, inviting place to imbibe away the hours and socialize with other connoisseurs. We were privileged to receive a glimpse behind the scenes, touring the space where they age their varietals in barrels stacked ceiling high. Their one-and-only winemaker, Conor McCormack, happened to be on site bottling and corking a few cases of a new Cab Sav, so we got to watch and then taste it, as we chatted with him in the intimate event space upstairs. The duo owners, Brian Leventhal and John Stires, who left unfulfilling, but lucrative positions in finance to follow their passion for wine and create a space that they themselves would want to hang out in with their friends, also mingled with us. We asked all kinds of questions, and they answered every single one, from where they got the furniture, to the grapes; how they design their labels and acquired such a desirable location; to the types of events they have on offer and their vision for the future. Ridiculously centrally located near Bedford Avenue on N 8th Street, with a spectacularly unique wine menu and lots of comfortably designed nooks to chill in, this is the place you want to spend a mellow Friday night, come for a workshop or a tasting, or host an intimate shindig of your own.
Finally, it was over to Brooklyn Farmacy in Carroll Gardens, a lovingly restored, 1920’s era soda fountain. Brought back to life by brother and sister team, Peter Freeman and Gia Giasullo, for a Discovery Channel reality TV renovation series, it’s a quintessential old gem that makes you think you’ve stepped back in time. Children came in with their parents to have a scoop of ice cream at the counter after school, grandparents read books to grandkids off the shelves of their library, and a group played board games on the big table in the back room. We were treated to traditional chocolate and vanilla egg creams, as the owners shared priceless stories about the history of the space, the condition they found it in, and how they went to great lengths to make it their own while attempting to remain true to the neighborhood. This joint manages to strike the perfect balance between family-friendly cute and edgy Brooklyn “Jerk.” You can buy more than two dozen locally made products from different BK artisans, proudly displayed in the Farmacy’s original wooden built ins. Lucky for you out-of-towners, these delicacies can also be purchased online at With Love, From Brooklyn or NY Mouth.
As the tour came to a close, I had a very heartwarming feeling that history has not been lost, but in fact, there are many people committed to preserving the stories and places that make these diverse neighborhoods truly one-of-a-kind. The culinary traditions of the past are alive and well for the current generations to appreciate, if you put yourself in capable hands and know where to look. As the afternoon sun began to dip behind the trees, I sat outside on the Farmacy’s bench chatting with a few old men about how life used to be and how things haved changed. I commiserated, with an understanding nod and an appreciation for their perspective, but also with joy in my heart that pearls like these still exist for me and hopefully, my children to experience. It may not be like it used to, but perhaps there’s still hope, that eventually we can make city living even better for the future.
Want to learn more about Urban Oyster Tours straight from the founders?
Sample goodies from these very same artisans yourself?
Get ideas for other local culinary tours and travel destinations?