Travel Food Article – A Californian’s Guide to Mexican Food in NYC
It takes a unique kind of Californian to abandon their lax lifestyle of lounging to venture to the metropolitan wonderland of New York City, but there are thousands of us who do. Whether you’re a first-timer exploring the city over a long weekend, spending the summer here for an internship or seasonal program, or taking the 3,000-mile leap for a long-term stay, one of the first genuine concerns a Californian has is their access to Mexican food deemed good enough for privileged tastebuds.
Since moving to NYC, whenever I befriend another Californian, the first thing I always ask is where to find great Mexican food. Almost 100% of the time it’s met with some variation of “nowhere.” I’m here to dispute this myth, mostly because I refuse to live in a place where I can’t have my fill of flautas, tortas, and from-scratch aguas frescas.
The most important thing West Coasters can do is come to terms with geography — we obviously don’t have the excess of sizzling street tacos as we do back home. People of Mexican origin make up a whopping 30% of California’s population. Even if their numbers in NYC are miniscule in comparison, great Mexican food and people do exist here! I’ve pieced together a list of Mexican eats even the most legit mole-making abuela wouldn’t immediately turn her nose up at.
Trying my best to mirror the quality of businesses back on the West Coast, the list of eateries meet the following criteria:
- It’s Mexican-owned.
- A meal (with drink) for one person costs under $15.
- It’s less than 35 minutes from Midtown Manhattan.
1. Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos (271 Starr Street, Brooklyn 11237)
Tacos / Tortillas / Quesadillas
Somewhere between East Williamsburg and Bushwick is a tortilleria pushing out luscious tacos that will help you forget how far from home you really are. This is one of the only places in hipster Brooklyn where you can find this quality of casual Mexican, and it’s Bourdain’s choice pick. My personal philosophy is that you’ll always find the best sandwiches at a bakery, and I believe the same for tacos and tortillerias.
2. Reyes Deli & Grocery (532 4th Avenue, Brooklyn 11215)
Bodega / Burritos / Tamales
It takes some time for a Californian to comprehend bodega-life, so finding Mexican food in the back of one can create a paradoxical mess of confusion in one’s brain. This little grocery in Gowanus is your one-stop-shop where you can simultaneously pick up whole-dried guajillo peppers, a couple of Our Lady of Guadalupe prayer candles, a huarache for the road, and whatever else your homesick heart desires.
3. Los Tacos No. 1 (Chelsea Market, 75 9th Avenue, New York 10011)
Tijuanan / Tacos / Aguas Frescas
Before you whip your chancla out at me for listing a place at Chelsea Market, know that Los Tacos No. 1 is the brainchild of Christian Pineda of Tijuana, Mexico and two of his close friends from Brawley, California. Their take on a West Coast taco stand is reminiscent of Disneyland’s take on New Orleans but don’t be fooled. Their decision to bring their simple menu featuring hand-pressed tortillas to Manhattan has been for the benefit of all passing through, including Californians.
4. Tacos El Bronco Mobile 1 (37th Street & 5th Avenue, Brooklyn 11232)
Meats / Late Night / Truck
Growing up, my dad mostly worked night shifts and would sometimes come home with half a burrito for me from his go-to taco truck. This was before the days of topping tacos with kimchi, when we referred to those trucks as roach coaches. While they also operate a brick and mortar, Tacos El Bronco has two trucks for those of us who feel at home eating tripas outside on the sidewalk at any given hour of the day or night.
5. Los Mariscos (Chelsea Market, 409 W 15th St, New York, NY 10011)
Fish Tacos / Seafood / Oyster Shooters
Also established by Los Tacos No. 1’s Christian Pineda and his partners, you can find an array of your seaside favorites at Los Mariscos also at Chelsea Market. Highlights are the housemade tableside salsas, micheladas, and fresh oysters. Downsides are that there are no packets of saltine crackers for your coctel de camarones, nor sand between your toes.
6. La Morada (308 Willis Avenue, Bronx 10454)
Oaxacan / Mole / Vegan
This family-owned sit-down is a long journey north for anyone in Brooklyn or LES, but if you make your way there, the dishes will transcend your soul south to Oaxaca. Natalia Mendez, Antonio Saavedra, and their children run this restaurant which has become a statement of anti-establishment and resistance, complete with a small library in addition to their carefully- and thoughtfully-made moles. While you can get any type of tacos or quesadillas in hand-pressed tortillas, do yourself a favor and try a tlacoyo or albondigas.
7. Zaragoza Grocery (215 Avenue A, New York 10009)
Late Night / Bodega / Meats
I don’t like to use the word authentic lightly because it’s dependant on what’s relative to an individual, but for anyone needing an ambience of grimy hole-in-the-wall to enjoy your Mexican food, you’re going to want to put Zaragoza at the top of your list. In addition to the goat burritos the late-night crowd goes nuts for, you’ll be able to find many Mexican ingredients and products, including charming, glass-bottled Colas, Squirts, and Fantas.
8. Miscelanea NY (63 E 4th Street, New York 10003)
Tortas / Vegetarian / Coffee
If you’re looking for a place highlighting artisanal and specialty Mexican products in New York, Miscelanea is it. Significantly more bourgie than the previously-mentioned bodegas, this general store and sandwich shop celebrates Mexican entrepreneurs, artists, and chefs in New York. Founded by Guillame Guevara who was born and raised in Mexico City of a French family, this shop is his homage to Distrito Federal. When the humidity rises, stop in for housemade aguas frescas, a cafe helado con horchata, or a paleta made by La Newyorkina.