I hope you’ll allow a little autobiography here as I begin this issue’s review. It’s just that I happen to have a Mexican background, so the stakes are a little higher for me when it comes to Mexican cuisine. Refried beans are my mashed potatoes. Sure, I grew up in the suburbs of Denver. And my Houston-born mother owes her cooking knowledge as much to Diana Kennedy as to her Mexican relatives. But through numerous tamalada-centered family reunions and vacations to my father’s hometown of Guadalajara, I’ve seen what Mexican food can be. A few years in Utah showed me Mexican at what I thought was its worst, and the scene did not look much better in New York City when I moved here nearly ten years ago. But that’s finally starting to change. The Mexicans are coming to Brooklyn, and they’re bringing their delicious food with them.
A good place to start sampling Brooklyn’s Mexican cuisine is Tacos Nuevo Mexico on 5th Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets. Mexican ballads are on the jukebox, Univision is on the tube, and Christmas lights, religious icons, and cactus-shaped mirrors cover the walls. Every table is covered with a colorful woven tablecloth covered by glass and plastic, and topped with a vase of wax raindrop-speckled silk roses. Here you’ll find your classic Mexican comfort food for under $10 an entrée, with even cheaper appetizers.
The menu features traditional favorites including burritos, tacos, enchiladas and fajitas, tostadas, and guacamole, along with some more exotic specialties like octopus salad and several breakfast items. Their limonada is frothy and sweet, but not too sweet. And the Michelada (usually a beer served with lime juice in a salt-rimmed glass) comes mixed with a little tomato juice. Tacos has a great selection of Mexican beers. I ordered the chalupas, which are supposed to be boat-shaped thick tortillas filled with meat or beans. The interpretation here is a plate of open-faced tortillas—a little disappointing, but still tasty. Mine came with a chewy roasted pork, both dry and juicy. This was served with tomatillo sauce, onions, cilantro and lime.
Even cheaper thrills can be found at Taqueria D.F., on lower 5th Avenue in Greenwood. Owned and run by a former Mexico City denizen (D.F. stands for Distrito Federal, the official name of Mexico City), this taqueria features tacos of all kinds and a self-serve array of freshly made salsas and toppings: guacamole, red salsa, tomatillo salsa, pico de gallo, onions, cactus, limes, radishes, and bottled jalapenos. There is a bar with stools, and Jarritos sodas in every flavor. But one of the tastiest offerings is the savory, crispy-skinned rotisserie chicken. You can take a half-chicken home with you, along with a stack of soft tortillas and salsas for $6.50. This feeds two people easily.
Even further downscale, but also delicious, is Williamsburg’s Matamoros Grocery on Bedford Avenue at N. 6th Street. In addition to the Mexican dry goods, the store has a great greasy spoon at the back where you can order delicious tortas (a Mexican sandwich—yes, with bread) and get some tasty, authentic tortillas. You can find more of the same throughout Sunset Park, a new haven for Mexican immigrants. Try the tortas at Don Paco Lopez Panaderia on 4th Avenue, between 47th and 48th Streets.
For something more upscale, there is Maria’s Mexican Bistro on Union Street, just up from 4th Avenue. Here the aim is elegantly presented new interpretations of Mexican classics, similar to Manhattan’s Salon Mexico but far more affordable. The restaurant is co-owned by Ecuador-born and Mexican-raised Nelson Nacipucha and Armando Zumba, who also co-owns Los Pollitos rotisseries and Café Mexicana next door.
I started with a special nopales salad with portobello and shitake mushrooms. (Nopal is cactus leaf, with the outer layer and spines removed.) The cactus came in long, thick, beefy strips and was tender without being slimy, as is the tendency with nopales. The mushrooms made a surprising but perfect companion, as both are flavorful, softly chewy vegetables. I remember a New Yorker once telling me that the secret to good guacamole is very ripe, soft avocados. Little did he know that ripe avocados are actually just the foundation to a good guacamole. The secret, to me, is lime juice. Maria’s uses plenty—perhaps a little too much. It holds up well with the hearty homemade tortilla chips, but if you’re not a citrus fiend ask them to go light with the lime.
I tried another special, an enchilada trio: one cheese-filled with tomatillo sauce, one lobster-filled with lobster sauce, and one chicken-filled with mole poblano. The tomatillo sauce was nice and tart, and the lobster rich, savory, and wonderful. But I was especially taken with the mole poblano. The sauce had the same raisiny flavor and warm afterglow as a mole poblano I tried in Mexico City’s Fonda el Refugio. An entrée of grilled shrimp is tender and smoky with chipotle sauce, and served atop a pillow of fluffy saffron rice. The chipotle sauce nearly blew off the top of my head. As a blind old woman once told a traveling friend of mine after they’d finished a fiery dish of hers, “Oye hijo, que tengo la boca enchilaaaadaaaa.”
I soothed my blistered tongue with the blood orange sorbet. Beautiful in its glass, it was sweet and tart with restraint, and tasted exactly like a blood orange. The flan (a Mexican custard) was light side with a burnt caramel sauce. Both desserts were nicely textured. If I’d had more room, I would have also sampled their crepes with cajeta, a caramel made with goat’s milk. I was delighted to find the bistro serves café de olla, coffee infused with cinnamon.
If you haven’t been to Bonita in Williamsburg lately, you’re in for a surprise. Bonita (Bedford Avenue at S. 3rd Street) used to be one of those places that transplanted Texans and Californians would leave with a shrug, saying “oh well, it’s New York.” But, just this April, Bonita got a new chef, Jean-Georges and Patria-trained Diego Baraona. The menu is the same, and the dishes are unpretentious. But this is deceptive. Impressive skill and effort dances behind these humble dishes to turn flavors bold, distinctive, and memorable. Baraona’s project is to create the freshest, best tasting Mexican comfort food possible, and indeed Bonita takes what Tacos Nuevo Mexico does and raises it all to a Platonic level. I only wish my mother had cooked this well.
Bonita, which is usually filled with hipsters, Mexicans, and Mexican hipsters, has regular menu items that are solidly traditional, but more refined in flavor and texture than what you’ll find at typical authentic Mexican eateries. Chicken, steak, and roasted pork tacos come piled with lettuce, onions, and radishes. Fish tacos are classic Baja: tilapia fried in a light, crispy batter and served with a mayonnaise of lime and buttermilk. Also light and crispy are the homemade tortilla chips. Tomatillo salsas at other places are usually dominated by cilantro and lime, flavors that can get redundant if you eat a lot of Mexican food. But the tomatillo sauce at Bonita stands out for its caramelized tomatillo flavor enhanced with garlic. The smoldering chipotle salsa is also singular, the pico de gallo is generously chunky, and the guacamole is the best I’ve tasted in Brooklyn.
But Baraona really shines with his specials. I tried a salad of whole, grilled calamari, with a creamy dipping sauce of pureed chipotle and red and green roasted peppers. A scallop salad came with a mango, cactus, and chipotle sauce, and mesclun with watercress. Under their crunchy exteriors the scallops were sweet and tender. Both dishes mixed sweet with spicy to flattering effect. I was impressed with how familiar flavors were combined in surprising ways that worked as if they were meant for each other, without any flashy, shrill showmanship.
For an entrée, I enjoyed a pork chop marinated in chipotle pepper and fresh orange and pineapple juices, smothered on one half with a luscious potato puree and on the other side with a spinach puree. When you cut into the crispy chop, little pools of juice formed puddles. And the tender interior was redolent with the flavors of the marinade. Pork chops are on the regular menu, but Baraona varies the sauces. Daily specials will change with the seasons. If what I’ve tried is any indication, they’ll always please.
Bonita’s tortillas are from Tortilleria Chinantla, a factory just a mile or two away in Bushwick. There is a changing array of agua frescas (I had a melon/pineapple), and pretty much all you could ask for in Mexican beers. Bonita’s sangria is tangy, with little apples. I recommend you order yours without ice, so the robust flavor is not diluted. I also encourage you to try dessert. Chocolate cake with a little bit of chili and whipped cream is mild and moist. But I was swept off my feet by the flan. A little creamier than the traditional, it has a surprisingly sharp cinnamon sauce. Finally, a reason to give a fig about flan.
Velez is a food blogger based in Brooklyn, NY.