It’s been kind of difficult to see past the Asian explosion that’s taken over the restaurant world in the last few years. It seems like everywhere you go it’s Kimchee this and Sriracha that, with Far East ingredients like Shiso and Yuzu dotting menus at places as disparate as Kin Shop in the West Village and Fishtail on the Upper East Side.
But if you take a moment to see past the Perilla Leaves and Kaffir Lime and reflect, you’ll find there’s also been a slow and steady expansion of regional Mexican influences in New York. And we’re not just talking tiny, hole-in-the-wall taquerias in the outer boroughs (which we love), or those midtown Tex-Mex chains (not so much). All sorts of new eateries — laidback, hip and even fine dining — have taken inspiration from the flavors of Oaxaca, Puebla, and Veracruz. Alex Stupak’s Empellón Cocina was one of the most buzzed about new restaurants of 2012 and deliciously so. A high end counterpoint to his earlier venture, Empellón Taqueria, Stupak aims to take Mexican food “in a new direction without stripping it of its soul.” At Empellón Cocina, that mission is expressed through inventive, elevated dishes like Pistachio Guacamole with Masa Crisps and Squid with Black Mole, Potatoes, and Sour Orange Mayonnaise. That’s just for starters.
Other noted names in the restaurant industry have responded to the rising interest in modern Mexican, like restaurateur John McDonald and partner-chef Josh Capon, with El Toro Blanco, and The Spotted Pig superpowers, Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield, with Salvation Taco. Calibrated to appeal to both the fashionable and Mexican enthusiasts alike, El Toro Blanco offers a varied menu with plenty of seafood dishes, like Charred Octopus Tacos and Tuna Ceviche with Cucumber, Soy and Lime. For those who favor the down and dirty, they’ve got Queso Fundido with chorizo, stellar tamales, enchiladas and plenty more. Salvation Taco, tucked inside the Ace Hotel, is trendy, too, but it’s a much more casual affair with one-of-a-kind tacos, like Roasted Cauliflower with Curried Crema, Moroccan Lamb on Naan for $5, and a variety of inspired snacks, including Ceviche Verde con Chicharones, coming in at under $10.
Chef Roberto Santibanez may have helped create the menu at Salvation Taco, but it’s hardly his only contribution to furthering the influence of Mexican food in NYC this year. He recently opened a second outpost of his well-respected Brooklyn restaurant, Fonda, in Alphabet City, offering an expanded roster of fancified regional specialties, like Cochinita Pibil, Camarones Adobados, and Enchiladas de Mole Negro Oaxaqueno.
You’ll have to stay in Brooklyn, however, if you want to taste of the “New” Mexican cuisine at Gran Electrica, a stylish and notably seasonal eatery from the team behind Colonie and Governor. Chef Sam Richman’s Peekytoe Crab Tostadas, Roasted Pork Tortas, and Duck Leg Tamales with Blood Orange and Almond Salsa are all delicious in their own right, but even better with one of their whimsical drinks, like the Margarita de Remolacha with Combier, lime and fresh beet juice, or the Pisco de Manzana, a blend of honey syrup, egg whites, Mexican cinnamon and Mezcal.
Illuminating nuances and bold flavor combinations in Mexican cooking is hardly uncharted territory for Julieta Ballesteros, who’s been overseeing the menu at Crema and Los Feliz for years. But she’s taken it to another level with her newest venture, China Latina, in Gramercy. Expect to find one-of-a-kind experiments in Asian-Mexican fusion, like Chorizo Shumai, Peking Duck Tacos, and Gordita Scallion Pancakes with Chile-Cinnamon Plantains and a Yuzu Reduction. Talk about two trends in one!
105 1st Ave., Btwn 6th and 7th Sts.
El Toro Blanco
257 6th Ave., Btwn. Bleeker and Houston Sts.
145 E 39th St., Btwn Lexington and 3rd Aves.
434 7th Ave., Btwn 14th and 15th Sts.
5 Front St., Btwn. Dock and York Sts.
127 W 27th St., Btwn 6th and 7th Aves.