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Mexican food takes over New York City

Tacos, tequila and moles galore, as New York witnesses a Mexican food boom

Mexican menu essentials.
Mexican menu essentials. (Photo by Chitokan C., Pexels)

New York City has good Mexican food. It’s been that way for a while, notwithstanding complaints from transplants who grew up in places—looking at you, California and Texas—where it can be the default cuisine. 

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For a couple of decades, the city’s best Mexican restaurants have been far flung and under the radar: spots you might know only if you lived in, or were familiar with, more remote parts of Queens and Brooklyn. Word-of-mouth recommendations from friends could help, as could the rise in culinary roundups on the internet.

The number of such spots has blossomed—thanks, in part, to the growing number of Mexican immigrants who came to New York over the past 40 years, especially from Puebla. So many have arrived from the central Mexican state that the city has earned the nickname “Puebla York.”

But finding New York’s best Mexican food often meant taking long subway rides to hole-in-the-wall spots where the Mexican chefs went to get a taste of home. It wasn’t so long ago that, unless you lived in the outer boroughs, “you would only see Rosa Mexicano and Dos Caminos and those kinds of offerings,” notes Santiago Ramírez Degollado, co-owner of Manhattan’s Casa Carmen, whose menu highlights the food of Veracruz. 

Casa Carmen is among the burgeoning number of Mexican spots occupying prime New York real estate. Its first outpost opened in pricey Tribeca in April 2022; the second debuted in the Flatiron district last year. Mezcali began serving Southern California-accented Mexican fare in late 2021 in the Financial District. And Quique Crudo, sibling to the acclaimed Casa Enrique in Long Island City, Queens, just opened in the West Village. (When Casa Enrique first won a Michelin star in 2015, it marked the beginning of long overdue acclaim for the city’s Mexican restaurants.)

Across the US, some 11% of restaurants serve Mexican cuisine, a Pew Research Center report found. While many serve fast food, of late  more kitchens are operating with heightened ambition, especially in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. They’re focusing on region-specific foods and traditions.

“Now, you can taste differences,” says Giovanni Cervantes, co-owner of the two-year-old Taqueria Ramírez in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint. “Now, you can see the regions and the flavors, and that’s something that just happened in the last five or six years.”

Despite the city’s ascendant scene, California and Texas still play home to more Mexican eateries, from taco trucks to fast-food spots and time-honored restaurants. Los Angeles County has nearly 5,500 Mexican restaurants while Harris County, Texas, has around 2,360. At just under 1,800, New York pales in comparison—but still boasts more options than San Diego, which borders Tijuana. 

That south-of-the-border city has directly influenced Los Tacos No. 1, a mini chain that’s grown from a wildly popular stall at Manhattan’s Chelsea Market to six locations across the island. Exemplary no-frills taco spots in the East Village such as Tacos Cuautla Morelos are accompanied by the trendy Empellón Al Pastor. The Bushwick, Brooklyn mainstay Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos, also operates as a tortilla factory. 

And then there’s Taqueria Ramírez, which can move 2,000 tacos on a busy day. Cervantes and his co-owning partner Tania Apolinar specialize in Mexico City-style tacos, using a traditional cooking vat called a choricera. In the process, they’re helping revise New York’s reputation for tacos, even among transplants. “When people from California come and tell us, ‘Wow, this is great,’ they always make sure to mention where they’re from,” says Apolinar. 

Casa Carmen, meanwhile, bases its concept on recipes from Santiago and Sebastían Ramírez Degollado’s grandmother, who founded a chain of restaurants in Mexico called El Bajío. The Casa Carmen menu presents the Spanish-language names of each dish, then lists ingredients in English. The pollo con mole xico features a rich, nearly black, Veracruz-style sauce atop a juicy chicken leg; the octopus is accented with the citrusy Mexican herb epazote. 

Some allowances were made in translating Carmen Ramírez Degollado’s cooking for the US: Recipes have been amended to accommodate vegetarians, and spice levels in a few sauces have been toned down. But booming tourism to all parts of Mexico has been familiarizing diners with the cuisine: Some 6.3 million people visited Mexico in November 2023, up from nearly 6.1 million a year earlier. “People in New York travel to Mexico a lot, and it’s not only the typical travel to Cancun,” says Santiago Ramírez Degollado. “They’re more educated in real Mexican food.”

Casa Carmen is one of the higher-end Mexican spots where taco prices start at around $9. That’s going rate at the stylish Atla in NoHo, too, and it’s a relative bargain compared to offerings at sister restaurant Cosme in Flatiron, where $98 duck carnitas are meant to be shared. (Miami’s new Chateau ZZ recently upped the price ante, offering $110 strip steak al pastor as the base for a taco spread.) Oxomoco in Greenpoint boasts a Michelin star and a menu that features modern takes on Mexican classics; Alta Calidad in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, has garnered a Bib Gourmand, Michelin’s rating for great value meals, with its saucy brunches and array of mix-and-match tacos. 

Meanwhile, Mexican bars are specializing in more than frozen margaritas, among them the brilliant Superbueno, where Negronis are made with mole-infused mezcal, and Bar Tulix, which features flights of tequila including an option that focuses on female producers. 

Tequila’s overwhelming popularity is spurring business at Mexican restaurants, says John McDonald, the founder of Mercer Street Hospitality, which owns Bar Tulix. In 2023, the US tequila market was valued at around $13 billion. “The drinking drives the eating,” he says, adding that tequila sales have been “an astronomical hockey stick.” 

Mercer Street Hospitality’s other restaurants have tripled their stock of tequilas and mezcals on hand, according to McDonald. Over the past five years, he says he’s seen an increase of about 10% to 15% year-over-year in revenue of tequila and mezcal, especially among super-premium products. Bar Tulix features a mezcal and tequila collection not unlike a wine list, with such bottles as Tequila Komos lush Reposado Rosa and Yola Mezcal’s smooth espadín complementing cruda dishes set off with cilantro and chilis, as well as braised short ribs, pork belly and a crispy spin on Spanish rice. 

For now, the post-pandemic “revenge travel” that sent masses hopping to the Mexican Riviera or Oaxaca to sample regional cuisines has slowed with the peso’s heightened strength. Fear not: New York’s  notable Mexican restaurants are happy to tide you over until you can get your passport stamped again.

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