Americans will find any excuse to party. No longer relegated to the flashy lights of Vegas or the boozy streets of South Beach, from Final Four to Flag Day, we continue to perpetuate the sacred art of revelry. And there is no better excuse to drink tequila (worm and all) and don a sombrero than Cinco de Mayo.
This May 5, like so many years past, millions around the country will guzzle margaronas (a Corona–margarita mix) and buckets of Dos Equis as howling mariachis fill the streets in full fiesta fashion.
Of course it’s not revolución we’re celebrating (September 16 is Mexico’s independence day, not the fifth of May). Instead, Cinco de Mayo commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla in which, against the odds, Mexican forces kicked some ass on the French.
In New York, Mexican fare isn’t exactly synonymous with the city’s fêted culinary persona. Sure, there’s the Dos Caminos and Rosa Mexicano’s, but the only thing that’s “killer” about the fresh guac and mango margaritas are the prices. Maybe it’s our penance to the Mexican food gods for all of the other wonderful cuisines—they just don’t do corned beef or mile high pastrami as good anywhere else—but I soon accepted that to live in New York meant to live in Mexican food purgatory.
Of course, Mexican food is a regionalized cuisine, and, as in Mexico, dishes vary greatly region to region.
A foodie by no means, I nevertheless have a deeply rooted appreciation of Mexican cuisine, and with more than 600 Mexican restaurants in this city I set out on a quest to prove that good, affordable Mexican food is like the Holy Grail—sure to exist and yet to be discovered.
My aventura began in El Barrio, also known as Spanish Harlem, at a little taqueria called Taco Mix. Known for its tacos el pastor, the pork here comes hot off the spit and into corn tortillas that are loaded with cabbage, onion, grilled pineapple, and covered in spicy chipotle sauce—add a splash of lime and jalapeños for kicks. One table, one jukebox, and a counter lined with hot sauce—this was no frills at its finest, and at two bucks a pop, worth every penny.
Spanish Harlem witnessed a tremendous influx of Hispanics in the 50s. In search of a Mexican-American identity, a way to make life “on the hyphen” work, Cinco de Mayo became a way for the Latino community to combine cultural heritage with newfound American pride and social solidarity with anti-imperialism.
The next day I ventured further east into El Barrio. Like Cinco de Mayo, cemitas, (sandwiches), hail from the city of Puebla and are especiales at Café Ollin. Here cemitas are filled with potatoes, tender cactus, onions, jalapeños, and lots of Oaxacan cheese. I was feeling adventurous and ordered lengua (cow tongue) with a homemade tamarindo bebida—a drink typical to Mexico and taquerias like this one, both sweet and pulpy with a slightly bitter fizz. Delicioso!
Comparable to crossing the Mexi-Cali border, the torta y tamale stands that line Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, are reminiscent of the Tijuana of my youth—minus the barbed wire, the Chiclet peddlers, and the perpetual fear of being gunned down by border patrol.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Rico’s Tacos was packed. The smell of simmering carnitas filled the air as families, mostly locals, filled the bright orange banquettes. Nobody, said the guy sitting next to me, does tortas like Rico’s. Mine came loaded with pickled jalapeños, fresh avocado, beans, lettuce, raw onion, and tomato (hold the mayo) and served on the toasted torta bun—my new friend was right.
Word on the street is, Soho’s La Esquina can be harder to get into than Harvard Law. But with the promise of mole de pato (duck), chiles rellenos and blue agave, it would be worth the struggle.
And it was. Friends in tow, we gorged on carnitas and pescado (fish) tacos, saving the best for last: corn on the cob, slathered with butter and cajun spiced mayo. We ordered a couple more for the road.
Next on my list were the famous rellenos and old-time chile con carne at El Parador Café, a New York City staple since the 60’s. Tehuitzingos in Hell’s Kitchen followed for tripe tacos before I hit the East Village’s Mercadito. The former two were better than the latter, and then it was back to Brooklyn for hazlenut mole, camarones (shrimp) adobados, and micheladas on the back patio of Fonda’s.
I wanted this one to be perfect. It started off that way at least. The guacamole was perfection with a side of corn tortillas and smoky salsa verde. Then came the entrees. More salse verde. Smothered. All over. Everything. I couldn’t get the smoky taste out of my mouth. The pineapple margarita, well, I prefer my tequila resposado and on the rocks. But the micheladas. Oh, the micheladas, they were perfecto. The Mexican bloody mary, I take mine with Modelo.
But with Cinco approaching I had yet to find “the one.”
Barrio Chino on Manhattan’s Lower East Side would be the culmination of my quest.
I met my favorite cousin, Kenny, a fellow Californian, outside of the nondescript locale just after 9 p.m. on a rainy Saturday. I had been dreaming about the posole rojo, pollito asado and, of course, the habanero-infused tequila all day.
A relatively new (and cool) kid on the block, Barrio Chino doesn’t take reservations and they had a bit of a wait problem. A three-hour wait problem.
My dreams of posole rojo, pollito asado and habanero-infused tequila were crushed.
No way were we waiting three hours.
Instead I ended my journey via motorcycle, traveling from one hacienda and ranchero to the next while sampling the local flavor.
OK, it didn’t end that way.
Instead, my journey ended at a Japanese fusion restaurant, (curiously Barrio Chino translates to “Chinese 'hood”) and as we feasted on yakitori and yellow-tail ceviche (Mexican food!) we reminisced about all of the wonderful Mexican food New York has to offer. Finally we made a toast: to the Battle of Puebla. Even though it’s not Mexico’s independence day, it’s a great excuse to party.