“There’s no good Mexican food in New York City.”
That’s what most people say, especially the Californians and the Texans, and that’s when they’re putting it politely. In an early scene of the second episode of Ugly Delicious, as David Chang talks about his preferences for tortas and burritos over tacos, the late Jonathan Gold jokingly replies, “You’re from New York. Of course you don’t like tacos. You haven’t had good tacos.”
Gold makes the joke knowing it belies the truth. See, there are two major camps of New York Mexican food haters: Folks from out west visiting New York — well, Manhattan — who are looking for the sit-down Tex-Mex or Cal-Mex places where one can order plates by the number, with sour cream, enchilada gravy, and melted yellow cheese. Then there are the people who only want to go to the kinds of places where one orders in Spanish and the tacos come with onion, cilantro, slices of lime, and fresh, colorful salsas; they claim that there’s no good Mexican food in New York because, well, there are not as many Mexicans here to make it.
I’m originally from Safford, Arizona, a small copper-mining town wedged near New Mexico in the state’s southeastern corner, and I have to admit, when I moved to New York in 2005, I thought the same thing. I have family on both sides of the border, and I was raised on Sonoran-style Mexican food, known for mesquite-grilled carne asada and thin, airy flour tortillas that melt in your mouth. I know the difference between Mexican food made for Mexicans — the stuff I grew up with — and the stuff that was popular in Arizona restaurants for a largely non-Mexican audience: chimichangas and the original Mexican pizza, the open-faced quesadilla called a cheese crisp, both made famous by the 97-year-old El Charro Café in downtown Tucson.
I came to La Gran Manzana in my mid-20s. Ostensibly, it was to get a Ph.D., but really, I yearned for something beyond the secluded Gila Valley, for a place that would be the opposite of everything I had ever known. The humid August day that I moved into my fifth-floor walk-up in East Harlem, the Metro-North roared outside my window, mixing with the sounds of salsa from my new neighbors. On Lexington Avenue, I passed by some kids sitting on stoops with giant, folded pizzas that they gripped with oil-soaked paper plates and a bakery selling pastries filled with guava and cream cheese. No, I was not in Safford anymore.
When I made a left on 116th Street, I found the Mexican flag, emblazoned with an eagle clutching a serpent in its beak as it rested on a nopal, waving outside a store that sold Spanish-language music. A pair of sidewalk speakers pumped out infectious cumbias sonideras, danceable DJ-styled electronic music as ubiquitous in Mexico as tequila. A crowd stood near the curb in front of the store. I realized it was a line, and that it led to a grocery cart loaded with pre-cooked ingredients in pots, where a señora was preparing a style of taco I had never encountered before: two semi-stacked corn tortillas enveloping three heaps of steaming rice, slivers of jalapenos and nopales, caramelized onions, and two boiled eggs chopped in half, then smashed smooth with the back of a spoon. She passed them out on pieces of foil on top of a napkin; customers poured on fresh salsas from bottles in a basket that hung from the side of the cart.
After I slipped into the line, it took 20 minutes to get to the front, and it was worth the wait. The taco’s layered textures combined the softness of the egg, rice, nopal, and tortilla with the spicy crunch of the rajas, which warmed the way for the salsa roja I added. It was nothing like the Sonoran-style grilled meat tacos I had known in Arizona: I had arrived in Puebla York.
The taco was a placero, a “market” taco de guisado popular with working people. Its variances across Mexico and around the United States are innumerable — in New York City, it’s a Poblano specialty available across all five boroughs. Let it be known: Gotham is not a burrito or breakfast taco-town, it’s a metropolis of tacos placeros. Though the NYC taco placero is not yet as pervasive as burritos in California or breakfast tacos in Texas, it’s only a matter of time.
Puebla, a landlocked state in south-central Mexico, is located in the region where maize was first domesticated over 8,000 years ago by the indigenous peoples of the upper Balsas River basin. Those indigenous roots remain visible in the foundational ingredients of Poblano cuisine — masa, squash, and chiles. The European conquest introduced ingredients like beef, pork, wheat, and cheese, resulting in a culinary tradition unique in the Americas, and distinct in its diversity of flavors. Puebla’s signature plates, like chiles en nogada — a stuffed poblano pepper filled with ground meat and diced fruit then topped with a walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds — and mole poblano, a complex turkey or chicken dish of up to 20 ingredients, are testament to its status as one of Mexico’s culinary capitals.
There are significant Poblano communities in Southern California, Chicago, and Passaic, New Jersey, but the diaspora’s capital is New York — yet in the recent history of Mexican food in New York City, Poblanos have received little to no credit for their contribution to the city’s food scene.
Spurred in part by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which had destabilizing effects on the Mexican economy, the Mexican population in New York exploded. In Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico, Alyshia Gálvez, professor of Latin American and Latino studies at Lehman College in the Bronx, points to how NAFTA-subsidized, U.S.-grown corn — a staple of the Mexican diet — flooded Mexico’s domestic market, while simultaneously restricting exports. Subsistence farmers in the largely rural Mixtec regions of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Puebla couldn’t compete with U.S. corn and were subsequently forced to migrate to the cities, and also to the United States. Within just a few years, Mexicans became the third-largest Latinx population in New York, after Dominicans and Puerto Ricans — who they are expected to surpass by 2036.
The Mexicans who found their way to New York hailed largely from Puebla. They settled first in established Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Ecuadorian neighborhoods, but eventually Little Mexicos emerged in each borough: East Harlem in Manhattan; Corona, Queens; Port Richmond, Staten Island; Mott Haven, South Bronx; and Sunset Park, Brooklyn. While migration from Mexico has decreased dramatically, the U.S.-born Mexican population continues to grow, and a distinct Mexican New York identity has emerged over time, one that is heavily Poblano by demographics and influence.
Eater NY restaurant critic Robert Sietsema recalled that Mexican food became undeniably visible around the year 2000. “We started to notice that Mexicans were taking over bodegas that had been run by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans,” says Sietsema. “As they moved into the bodegas, they started substituting their own favorite products. Then they started adding taquerías to the backs of their bodegas. Doing this, they created the single most important Pueblan New York institution: the bodega taquería.”
The bodega taquería was where the taco placero first debuted in New York City, as well as the shawarma-style tacos Árabes on flour tortillas, the closest tortilla resemblance to the pita-style tacos of Puebla, which reflect the Middle Eastern migration to Mexico in the 1930s. Bodegas also introduced New Yorkers to Pueblan staples such as mole, the pumpkin-seed-based sauce pipián, pineapple-marinated tacos al pastor, the Poblano-style torta called cemitas (distinguished by the sesame-seeded bun and pápalo leaves, which have a pungent, sharp taste), camotes (candied sweet potatoes), and a long list of Mexican antojitos, or snacks, made from fresh masa. Among these antojitos are picaditas, huaraches, and tlacoyos, dishes with different ingredients and preparations, but which all include toppings served over fried masa, shaped like a thick corn tortilla, that forms a plate underneath.
Even with this extensive list of delicious Poblano foods, other varieties of Mexican food — Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, and New Mexican — continued to overshadow Poblano cuisine in the restaurant scene throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Poblanos cooked for themselves, for their own communities, and apart from the trends happening in the city’s restaurants. For Gálvez, who has lived in New York throughout nearly the entirety of the 30-year wave of Mexican migration, there was a clear divide in New York’s Mexican food. “There was the fantastic food made at home, small gatherings for Poblanos, and local family-run restaurants that catered to the immigrant community with foods they recognized and yearned for,” she said. “And then there was the Mexican food made for the non-Mexican, non-immigrant community, the more ‘mainstream’ and ‘fine’ Mexican restaurants.”
Chef Zarela Martinez put that “fine” Mexican dining on the map in New York City in the mid-1980s. Originally from the state of Sonora, Martinez introduced New Yorkers to the culinary diversity of Mexican foods through her restaurant, Zarela, and her cookbooks Food from My Heart, The Food and Life of Oaxaca, and Zarela’s Veracruz. Zarela, which closed in 2011, remains a touchstone for high-end Mexican even today — a scene that continues to thrive in New York. There are five Michelin-starred Mexican restaurants in the United States, and three of them — Casa Enrique, Claro, and Oxomoco — are here.
Yet few fine dining restaurants explicitly tout Poblano cuisine on their menus, some 20 years after the emergence of Puebla York. The sole exception is Casa Enrique, where chef Cosme Aguilar, originally from Chiapas, honors his father’s municipio of Piaxtla, Puebla, a rural territory of fewer than 5,000 people in the southern part of the state. Aguilar’s mole, of which New York Times critic Pete Wells is a fan, contains raisins, chocolate, sesame seeds, almonds, avocados, and seven different peppers with breathtaking hints of plantain, while his chamorro de borrego al huaxamole — lamb shank marinated in a sauce of toasted huaxe seeds — would be familiar in the Mixtec region of Puebla, where the same sauce is called mole de caderas.
The foodways of Puebla run deeper than the fine dining scene, beyond which Poblanos have quietly shaped the culinary history of the city with a cuisine that is equal parts mole poblano, cemitas in a deli, and al pastor-topped pizza.
Johnny Rosas is the chef at Antojitos El Atoradero in Brooklyn, located within the bar Parklife in Gowanus. He’s an army veteran whose passion for cooking was instilled in him by his mother, chef Denisse Lina Chavez, formerly of Carnitas El Atoradero in the Bronx, and later El Atoradero in Brooklyn. The family hails from San Juan Huiluco, a small town of fewer than 2,000 people on the outskirts of Atlixco, Puebla, just at the base of the active volcano Popocatépetl. Antojitos El Atoradero is Rosas’s first restaurant, but it builds on the work of his family, and on Chavez’s reputation — she has garnered praise from the Times and Eater NY, among others.
Rosas was born in Brooklyn but spent four years of his early life in San Juan Huiluco. “We lived in a humble community,” he says. “But when we had fiestas, that’s one thing that always sticks with me, when all the food vendors came out. Cemitas, tortas, tacos, moles, chiles en nogadas, you name it, and lots of people. And that stays with me, that feeling of food and people feeling joy.”
Rosas moved to Mott Haven in 1999. “I remember being one of the first Mexican kids in my middle school,” he said. “My mom started El Atoradero Grocery, and we were one of the first Mexican stores, like the second one in a 20-block radius.” During his years of military service, Rosas travelled around the United States, trying the local Mexican food at each stop. I asked if he had ever heard about “bad” Mexican food in New York. “Everywhere, and all the time,” he said. “But put it this way, Texas and California, they used to be Mexico, and Mexican people have been there a long time. In New York, we’re new, a lot of immigrants, and our food is one thing we still have as Mexicans.”
On a Saturday afternoon in March, I tried Rosas’s picaditas de salsa verde topped with carnitas. The carnitas are Michoacán-style — picnic cuts of ham are braised in lard in a copper pot, then heated until the meat crisps — building on a recipe from Rosas’s stepfather Bulmaro Guillén, who is from Michoacán. The succulent bits of crispy pork are tender on the inside and seem to melt, while the salsa verde adds a spicy tang that soaks into the blue corn base. (Rosas also uses his mother’s hallmark blue corn masa for the tortillas and antojitos.)
“It would be great if New York Mexican food stays as Mexican as it can,” Rosas says. “And hopefully someday people will say New York has the best Mexican food.”
When you exit the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue station in Queens, you’ll find yourself surrounded by Southeast Asian restaurants. In the midst of the wide array of choices is Taqueria Coatzingo, one of the first sit-down Poblano restaurants in Jackson Heights. For nearly two decades, this restaurant has stood out among the food carts parked along Roosevelt Avenue with a menu that Sietsema describes as the most unapologetically Poblano in the city, and whose tacos rank among its best.
Taqueria Coatzingo is run by the Zapata family. Rufino Zapata, a native of Coatzingo, with a population of just under 3,000, first migrated to Los Angeles alone in 1990. Zapata returned to Mexico City a few years later, where he met his future wife, Gloria. In 1993, Rufino and Gloria, who was pregnant with their first child, migrated to New York City, where they had relatives and friends from Coatzingo. By 1999, the Zapatas had opened their first Taqueria Coatzingo in Woodside, which was lost to a fire. The Zapatas opened the current Taqueria Coatzingo in Jackson Heights, where it has been located since the early 2000s. They opened up the restaurant in part because “there were taquerías, but not that many,” says Beatris Zapata, Rufino and Gloria’s daughter. “For Latinos, there were a lot of Colombian restaurants, but we were doing some[thing] different.”
“Back then, there was no other Mexican restaurant around that part of Roosevelt Avenue,” Zapata said. “We gained our popularity by being in this location for so long and for being one of the first to open in this neighborhood.”
Many of the employees at Taqueria Coatzingo come from areas surrounding Coatzingo, and maintain transnational social networks between Puebla and Queens. Word of mouth forms a chain for work opportunities, which is also part of the business plan for Poblano restaurants in the city — to draw from community networks for trusted labor, and to provide a stepping stone for Poblanos migrating to the city. As the Mexican community has grown in Jackson Heights and Corona, so has the business. Today, Taqueria Coatzingo has a full restaurant, bar, and panadería; a second location, owned by Gloria Zapata’s brother Manuel Sánchez, has opened just three blocks east.
Taqueria Coatzingo’s most renowned dish is barbacoa de chivo, or goat barbacoa, which is only served on weekends. Traditionally, in Coatzingo, barbacoa de chivo is slow-cooked over coals with a layer of maguey leaves spread over crisscrossing sticks of wood. On top, another layer of leaves traps the heat. At Taqueria Coatzingo, the slow roasting for the barbacoa happens in a Queens-flavored oven, but with memories and flavors reminiscent of home. “Every little pueblo near Coatzingo does barbacoa slightly different,” Zapata said. “Ours is not as spicy at all, but we have a strong flavor. When you taste it, that flavor, you travel to Coatzingo.”
Another favorite at Coatzingo is the cemita, which is filled with your choice of meat (I usually go with the milanesa de res), pulled queso Oaxaca, sliced avocado, chipotle peppers, onions, salsa roja, and pápalo leaves. For some, cemitas handily outshine tacos, because the quality of the bread is superior to the mass-produced corn tortillas that are ubiquitous around the city, even at many Poblano spots. Taqueria Coatzingo’s bread is baked at its own panadería, and the result is both tender and eggy, tough enough to hold up to the hefty layers within without succumbing to the weight. “Our cemita is pretty good, just like in Puebla,” Zapata says, then laughs. “Actually, ours is better than Puebla’s because it tastes more like Puebla in New York.”
I live in Queens these days, about 15 years after I first moved to New York from Arizona, and within walking distance of nine Poblano taquerías and loncheras. I’ve noticed over the years that New York’s tacos placeros have grown ever more immense — platter-sized corn tortillas, sometimes topped with poblano pepper chiles rellenos, entire paddles of cactus, beans, and potatoes.
In a conversation with Sietsema, he related how the evolution of these “opulent,” distinctly New York forms of the placero parallel the growth in size of the NYC slice, which resulted from an increasingly competitive pizza landscape. More pizza for one’s money. More taco for one’s money. The New York City way, especially because both pizza and tacos placeros can be eaten standing up.
I suspect that tacos placeros will be the defining taco of New York in the coming years. That logic may seem a little biased because the taco placero was my first New York taco so long ago, sure, but it’s hard to think of a more iconic slice of Puebla York — or a more concise argument that Mexican food in New York doesn’t just not suck, it’s worthy of attention and respect in its own right. To Jonathan Gold, whom I imagine with a shopping cart taco placero in some better place, and who always honored and appreciated Mexican food in his city, I say: Puebla York isn’t LA, but that’s the way it likes it.