Taco Food Truck, Chilo's

This sunny corner spot by the owners of Mayfield, also in Bed Stuy, opened just in time for outdoor dining season. The main attraction is the back patio, which in Hot Bird fashion holds several picnic tables and a food truck. It’s not quite as large a space, so you may find yourself jockeying for position during peak hours, but think of it as an excuse to make friends with your neighbors.  (more…)

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For chefs and diners, Mexican is often the food of compromise. It may be challenging to round up a gang for a meal of foie gras doughnuts in Bed Stuy, but I never have any problems getting anyone to go out for margaritas in Manhattan. And if the Mexican restaurant in question also happens to serve excellent food, everybody wins.  (more…)

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Maria’s Kitchen, Shelter Island

The authentic taste of Mexico City has sprung up in a most unlikely place: the WASPy enclave of Shelter Island, New York. Across the street from a sleepy pizza shop that’s been there forever and down the road from the IGA supermarket is a little bodega with cheerful yellow shutters outside and racks of Polvorones cookies, Maseca corn flour and Jarritos soda within. The cars in the front parking lot run the gamut from soccer mom SUVs to flashy convertibles to landscaping trucks. The shop is a labor of love from Maria Schultheis, who worked in the juice bar that occupied this space last summer. Spending days at the juice bar and nights as a house cleaner, she saved up enough money to open Maria’s Kitchen, which introduces the food of her native Puebla to the Hamptons. (more…)

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Empellon Cocina

Guacamole, Empellon Cocina

Empellon Cocina is not a Mexican restaurant.

If you’re looking for a big, messy plate of chicken enchiladas for cheap, head elsewhere. The East Village may be Mary Ann’s territory, but at Empellon Cocina, chef Alex Stupak doesn’t do enchiladas – or messy, or cheap. What he does do is use Mexico as a jumping off point for incredibly creative, globalized cuisine.  (more…)

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Chef's Table at Hecho en Dumbo: A Pictorial Tour

Mexican cuisine has come a long way in New York City in the last fifteen years, but the new tasting menu at Hecho en Dumbo is a sign that it hasn’t peaked yet. French-style service, technique and presentation meet Mexican food in this five-course meal, served at the bar in front of the open kitchen, which the restaurant recently transformed from just extra seating to a communal “chef’s table.”

Here’s a pictorial tour of the meal, which, with a few freebies thrown in for all the diners that night, topped out to seven courses for just $55. The setting may not be as fancy as a Boulud restaurant, but it’s an interesting window into the inner workings of a very busy kitchen. Chef Danny Mena, a Mexico City native who previously cooked at the Modern, manages a team of five, who quickly dish out small plates of roasted kid goat, wild striped sea bass, local beet salad and more. They’re as beautifully presented as French cuisine, made with artisanal ingredients contrasting in an inventive way, but the flavor is distinctly Mexican.


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Rockaway Taco

There’s been a lot of press about the Rockaways lately – the surfing, the scene and the new food kiosks opening up on the boardwalk. But before you get distracted by the latest additions, don’t forget to hit up the original shack that made the Rockaways a food destination, because it’s still the best out there.

Surfboard, Rockaway Taco

Started by David Selig in 2008 and chefed by Andrew Field, Rockaway Taco is a beachy, Montauk-esque takeaway joint across from abandoned houses and around the corner from a row of boarded up shops. There may be more Williamsburg weekenders in the Rockaways now, but this area still has a long way to go until total gentrification. Colorful little Rockaway Taco is a beacon of good food and good vibes, unskippable if you’ve already made it all the way out to the end of the A line.  (more…)

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FOMO: fear of missing out. It’s the feeling that strikes whenever a much-hyped new restaurant opens and oh my god you might not get there while it’s still hot and everyone’s talking about it unless you get there right now. It’s the feeling that has gripped New York ever since foodie mania has slowly crept into the city’s zeitgeist – and anytime ramps are in season.

Exterior, Empellon

Given the amount of hoopla surrounding the opening of Alex Stupak’s new restaurant Empellón, diners should be forgiven for mobbing the place. A WD-50 alum takes on Mexican cuisine! In a cool new space in the West Village! This was in every imaginable media outlet online and off a couple weeks ago. Well, take a deep breath, because if you haven’t gotten there yet, you’re not missing out that much.  (more…)

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Yerba Buena West

A restaurant that serves food from a variety of different but interrelated countries is usually one you should avoid. Sushi and bibimbop and pad thai? How do you know which one the kitchen can actually do well? But if chef-partner Julian Medina at Yerba Buena West had stuck to just Mexican or Cuban food, the diners would have been the ones missing out on the variety of stimulating dishes and cocktails this place has to offer.

Cholula Cocktail, Yerba Buena Perry

Not just Mexican or Cuban but also Argentinian, Peruvian and Chilean, the menu at Yerba Buena West touches down on ceviches, arepas, empanadas and grilled meat. Here everything feels a little less trendy and more grown up than the original Yerba Buena in the East Village. An antique bar frames one side of the room, and the vibrant blue lighting of the East Village spot has been ditched for the traditional look of cream-colored upholstered chairs, black and white tile floors, exposed brick and cream colored walls and minimal decorations. Senor Swanky’s this is not. (more…)

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Hecho en Dumbo

If you’re opening a Mexican restaurant in New York, do you set out to please the general Tex Mex diner who expects chips and salsa to land on the table at the beginning of every meal? Or do you go the authentic route and offer things like cactus and rajas?

Open Kitchen, Hecho en Dumbo

Hecho en Dumbo, which just arrived on the Bowery in the old Marion’s space, toes the line between the two schools of Mexican food, offering amazingly good, deeply spicy, traditional Yucatan cuisine—but also a number of fun cocktails and some tortilla chips for the type of person who says “Let’s go out for margs!” When “authentic” can mean not just “truly Mexican” but true to anyplace that has adopted Mexican food (like those Mission-style burritos at Dos Toros), this approach seems like the best route to success for a new style of Mexican restaurant. (more…)

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Lunch: Dos Toros

No matter how much New Yorkers try to claim their city’s superiority in various areas—culture, music, fashion, 24-hour delivery of anything you desire—there is one category in which we must concede defeat: availability of good, authentic Mexican food. California has always had us beat in this department. It’s not that we are unaware of the problem. It’s just that, like many great quandaries of the day, we don’t know how to fix it.

Dos Tors, Interior

Fortunately, two brothers from San Francisco, Leo and Oliver Kremer, arrived in the city determined to recreate Mission-style Mexican here in New York. The new Dos Toros taqueria near Union Sqare provides a much-needed upgrade to the Mexican food situation in Manhattan, which, unlike Brooklyn and Queens, hasn’t benefited from the recent uptick in good taquerias. (more…)

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La Superior

One of the worst things about eating Mexican food in LA is coming back and eating it in New York. The New York version of Mexican food is almost sure to disappoint after you’ve had the vibrant, spicy food at a random hole-in-the-wall in an LA strip mall. Even the most successful NYC Mexican restaurants don’t source traditional ingredients like goat, and they get the cheese all wrong – Vermont cheddar is surely not a staple south of the border. Most Mexican food in New York is what Italian food was here in the mid-’80s: dumbed-down Mexican-American, not authentic Mexican.

That’s why it was such a relief to discover La Superior in Williamsburg after reading Pete Wells’ $25-and-under review. As soon as the first dishes landed, we knew: they got the cheese right.

La Superior’s requesón is a mild but cheesy cheese, fresh, with the consistency of a crumbly cottage cheese. Though it’s said you can use ricotta as a substitute, I don’t find the taste the same at all. (One close flavor you can sometimes find is Mexican Cotija cheese – not at high-end cheese stores, but at corner bodegas.) Here it is sprinkled on top of the flautas de pollo, which were very crisp and topped with bright, fresh greens and salsa that contrasted with the creaminess of the cheese.

Gorditas, typical Mexican street fare, are highly addictive little corn buns, split and stuffed with chorizo, lettuce, and more requesón. La Superior’s taste a little like huitlacoche, the surprisingly tasty weird corn fungus. If you want to spice up the gorditas some more, the green salsa served alongside does the trick.

The quesadillas also come street-style, more like heftier empanadas than a mere fried tortilla. But for me this amount of bread overwhelmed the filling.

Their tacos are amazing little delights, each one a separate burst of flavor. (This too is where so many other NYC Mexican places get it wrong – all Mexican dishes shouldn’t taste the same.) Clockwise from top, these are the camarón al chipotle (very spicy shrimp tacos), the carne asada (smoky grilled skirt steak), the carnitas (pork confit topped with sweet white onion), and the phenomenal rajas, roasted poblano pepper strips cooked with that fabulous cheese. This was a really intriguing combination. Usually you think of a creamy cheese as something to quell the spiciness of pepper, but when they’re cooked together, the cheese has the effect of drawing it out.

Alas, there may be a shortage of authentic Mexican food in New York, but if you can locate Cotija cheese, here’s a recipe for a Mexican salad for you. But if you’re going to La Superior, here’s your strategy:

  • Arrive early (7-ish). If there’s a wait, you’ll have to wait in line – they don’t take cell phone numbers.
  • BYOB! There’s a bodega around the corner with a good selection of beer.
  • Prices are crazy cheap.
  • Their idea of “decor” is a single string of colored lights. You’re not here for the romance.
  • It’s much easier to get a table on busy nights as a party of two than as a larger party.

La Superior
295 Berry Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211

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Austin, TX

This is a special guest entry from Chef MC, who visited Austin, TX a couple weekends ago, before all the South by Southwest music festival mayhem starts tomorrow. Here she is, pictured, left. Just kidding! I don’t know who that lady is. But whoever she is, according the SXSW website, she’ll be rockin’ it out in Austin all week.

Those of you heading down there will find some fabulous margaritas, hotels, restaurants, and shopping. Oh yes, and some more margaritas.

I am back from my weekend in Austin,TX! Here are some highlights:

* The hotel where I stayed, the Hotel San Jose, a former motel-turned brothel-turned hip happening hot spot. I was in a “Grand Standard” room, which I referred to as “The Cell”. I would describe it as high design done on the cheap (and very well). Industrial, stark and modern, almost cold, Frette sheets and towels, very comfy bed, with a whiff of retro 1950s (which is the theme all over Austin, sometimes with Mexican mixed in). Very professional service. I would definitely stay here again.

Food-wise, the bill of fare is varying degrees of TexMex for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a couple of exceptions. Plus excellent coffee. My favorite spots were:

* Uchi’s. We had a fabulous meal on Saturday night. Went on the suggestion of my friend, Chef Kevin Quinn and then heard it recommended by several others. It was basically a cool sushi place, but it had more of an Asian-fusion menu. We had the omakase tasting menu, which featured endless courses of deliciousness. It was as good as any place like it in NYC.

* Las Manitas. Best spot for breakfast in Austin. A fresh-fresh menu that seemed designed to provide a rescue from the margarita hangover. This was my 5th visit to the place and it always satisfies. This time around I had fresh squeezed watermelon juice and a plate of Migas Con Queso with a side of plantains. They make their own tortillas and you can watch the lady churn them out while waiting to get in to the ladies room. The menu is here.

* Guero’s Taco Bar. The TexMex here is fine, not amazing. Great people watching and hopping scene. Loved the margaritas. We came here for a long lunch break from shopping the funky boutiques on South Congress. Needed to head back to my hotel after lunch to take a nap. Did I mention the great margaritas? We had tortilla chips with assorted hot sauces for dipping, Queso (basically a big bowl of molten cheese with hot sauce mixed in), and I had a quesadilla platter with chorizo. Oh yeah, and a margarita or three called “The Purest”, which was a mix of Patron Silver, Cointreau and fresh squeezed lime juice. My friends enjoyed a local beverage specialty that was basically bloody mary mix with lime juice and Tecate beer. Very refreshing!

* Home Slice, “Queen of Pies”. Another suggestion of Chef Kevin Quinn. He said it’s almost as good as New York. Well I don’t know about that, but it was pretty darn good. We had a pie with eggplant. Our waitress also made some good wine recommendations to go with it and was surprisingly knowledgeable on the subject.

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Just the idea of Mexican food can bring out the worst in New York diners and restaurant owners alike: the former tend to be more interested in a tequila-fueled good time than what’s on the plate, and the latter have been known to pack ’em in and overcharge ’em, unless, of course, they’re keeping out the hordes with an aggressive bouncer and a velvet rope.

Not so with the low-key Papatzul, just opened on Grand Street in SoHo, in the space that housed La Jumelle. The beautiful old oak bar is still there, and behind it is a bartender so friendly that we decide to have our entire meal perched in front of him. The dining room doesn’t seem very warm, somehow, and there we might be serenaded by the band, the members of which inform one of us, in Spanish, that they are decidedly not a mariachi band, but a serious group of performers. This distinction is one Papatzul itself faces, and at times, it teeters on the border: fun and slightly campy vs. serious Mexican.

People like to judge Mexican restaurants by their guacamole and margaritas. To be honest, I don’t think there’s that much difference, in such simple concoctions, between good guacamoles/margaritas made with fresh ingredients, except that each has its own style. Papatzul’s guacamole is bright and citrusy, flecked with dark green minced chili peppers when ordered medium spicy. The margaritas have the bite of fresh lime without too much sugar. The menu is limited, but many of the items on it are lighter, authentic Mexican fare. In the ensalada palmito, each element shines – the briny pickled hearts of palm hit just the right note against the sweet slices of pear. The chilapitas de camarones – tortilla cups of shrimp, mango and jicama – have the same bright citrus punch of the guacamole but are too simplistic to be particularly interesting. The thick tomato sopa de tortilla could use some more spice too. We allow ourselves a tortilla pie – guilty filler Mexican food, basically, but very satisfying and tasty all the same.

A friend who has spent a lot of time in Mexico steers us toward the chile poblano relleno de calabza alamendras, a poblano chili stuffed with butternut squash and served over a sauce of tomato, currants and almonds. It’s very authentic, she says, and perfect for November, when chilies are at their best. I don’t know much about the seasonality of chilies, but the combination of the smoky, spicy baked chili and sweet butternut squash has a certain mystery that seems quintessentially Mexican. Just as, with a good mole, you wonder how any one thing can be chocolately but not at all sweet, earthy yet burningly spicy all at the same time, the chile poblano tastes much more complex than it can possibly be without any added spices, and yet there don’t seem to be any spices added. The paradox strikes me at levels both sensual and cerebral, but if you asked anyone more familiar with the territory of Mexican cuisine, they would tell you that Papatzul’s food tastes decidedly homey.

55 Grand Street, between West Broadway and Wooster Street

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