Bites in the Big Manzana
As a proud New Yorker, I gotta ask: What the fuck is up with Mexican food in this city? Sure, we’re used to getting owned by California and Texas and even Chicago when it comes to getting kick-ass, cheap, regional Mexican food. But I just got back from Philadelphia, where I was able to score some mighty fine tortas and [Distrito Federal]-style tacos that seriously kicked the asses of anything I’ve ever had in Manhattan. To put that in perspective for you Californians, that’s like the Guatemala of the East Coast!
How can it be that in a city where just about every commercial kitchen in every imaginable cuisine is powered by some seriously world-class Mexican talent, we can’t get decent, affordable Mexican food without having to go to Queens or Brooklyn or the Bronx? Sure, we’ve got Rosa Mexicano and Mercadito and the like—but I can’t afford to spend a month’s rent on one meal. All I want is a nice taqueria that I don’t have to traverse a bridge or a tunnel to get to. This isn’t Arizona! Everyone’s a damn immigrant here! So why are we being punished like this?
—Deprived in N.Y.
Are you a proud New Yorker—or a proud Manhattanite? Because you answered your question in your pregunta. The Big Manzana historically didn’t have great Mexican food (although it did have a crucial role in the development of Mexican food in the United States—you’ll have to wait until next year for my upcoming book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America [And Soon, the World] for the details) because Mexicans didn’t migrate to the region in large numbers. That changed in the last 20 years, with Census 2000 showing that Mexicans were New York’s fastest-growing ethnic group—and that was before the Reconquista truly wrapped its mestizo hands around Gotham! You have some of the highest concentrations of people from Puebla and Hidalgo in the United States, so feast on barbacoa and cemitas poblanas (sandwiches that make hoagies seem as puny as a singular pierogi) to your panza’s content—and leave the whining to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.
I’m a huge fan of yours, and I decided that I would at long last ask the Mexican a question! I sat down this morning to drink my mocha and realized that I had no idea how Mexicans like their coffee. The Europeans have espresso, the Americans have McDonald’s mud, but what do the Mexicans have? Help me, amigo!
Café de olla—coffee from the pot, preferably lead-lined. Spiced with cinnamon and piloncillo, unrefined brown sugar usually formed into a cylindrical triangle from which Mexis smash off pieces. Café de olla is like a Mexican woman—spicy; sweet; caliente; perfect for late nights, early mornings and slow, gentle blowing on its top before sipping.
SHAMELESS PLUG! Not for me, for once, but for the most Mexican gabacho I know that’s not a cousin-in-law: Robb Walsh, the Edward Gibbon of Texas food history, recently came out with a new book, The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook. Walsh being Walsh, it’s no mere grab bag of great, easily reproducible recipes: You also get gorgeous pictures and stories on the different facets of Tex-Mex cuisine. Learn, for instance, about the curious history of the fajita, or the advent of the margarita. A great, useful read, and like I say in the blurb I contributed on the back of the book: Anyone who doesn’t buy it deserves deportation. Learn more at www.robbwalsh.com, and felíz grilling!