Better Call Salsa

Julie Besonen


Cold margaritas and spicy Mexican food are just the ticket on summer nights, fun and flexible and making you feel like you're on vacation even if you're around the corner. The delightful Rockaway Taco in Rockaway Beach is worth a day trip, but elsewhere in the City, the cuisine has gotten better than ever. Anyone who thinks our Mexican doesn't compare to California's hasn't been to Alex Stupak's exciting Empellón Cocina or Empellón Taqueria, nor have they they had the fresh ground masa tortillas at Corona's Tortilleria Nixtamal. Great Mexican chefs have set down roots here, giving us gems like Fonda (Roberto Santibañez) and Toloache (Julian Medina). We're also grateful to Bay Area transplants for Dos Toros Taqueria (Leo and Oliver Kremer) and Mission Cantina (Danny Bowien). La Superior in Williamsburg was a Mexican street food pioneer when it opened in 2008, and it's just as delicious and low priced today. If you're looking for something more along the lines of Mexico City nightlife, La Esquina continues to be the epitome of cool. To see our other Mexican favorites, take a look at our slideshow.   

Photo: Fiamma Piacentini

35 E. 21st St., 212-913-9659, Flatiron District, Manhattan
Excitement is building for the October 28th debut of Cosme, a roomy, chic Mexican restaurant from celebrated chef Enrique Olvera. Pujol, the cornerstone of Olvera's restaurant empire in Mexico City, is routinely voted the best in Mexico as well as one of the top 50 restaurants on the planet. What he's aiming for in the Flatiron District is an unpretentious neighborhood joint with à la carte items priced under $25 and an extensive mezcal and tequila selection. And yes, there will be margaritas. The restaurant's warm house-made tortillas will be the ideal vehicles for swiping up intense moles, mushroom and potato barbacoa and creamy burrata with salsa verde. Olvera plans to source meats and vegetables from local purveyors and combine them with heirloom beans and corn imported from Mexico. Of late, Alex Stupak and his Empellón chainlet have helped lay the groundwork for progressive Mexican cuisine's moment; with Cosme, it's really arrived.

Photo: Prince Rumi

The Black Ant
60 Second Ave., 212-598-0300, East Village, Manhattan
Black ants are front and center at this innovative, sexy and stylish Mexican cantina, depicted on hand-painted tiles, peppering guacamole and ground up with salt and brown sugar to rim margarita glasses. Need we mention that ants (chicatanas) are a delicacy? Grasshoppers are here too, crusting shrimp tacos or sautéed and served on cheesy, crunchy tortillas. Chef Mario Hernandez, of sister restaurant Ofrenda in the West Village, has also fine-tuned delicious duck dumplings with mole negro and wonderful cod cheek tacos, maybe the best fish taco you'll have outside of Baja. The high energy of the dark space—some of it due to the splendid tequilas and mezcals on hand—makes it ideal for dates and birthday parties. Or stop in for happy hour (4–7pm) to savor discounted drinks and $8 appetizers. 

Photo: Annabel Ruddle

Los Tacos No. 1
75 Ninth Ave., Chelsea Market, 212-256-0343, Chelsea, Manhattan
The name Los Tacos No. 1 is no empty boast; the tacos are truly hard to beat. Mexicans, Angelenos, New Yorkers and tourists from all over the world cluster at this cheerful Chelsea Market stall, folding up their freshly griddled, overstuffed corn or flour tortillas, trying to prevent juice from slipping down chins, forearms or on the white-tiled counter. Pork lovers must get the adobada, the meat shorn from a shawarma-like spit. Arrayed along the counter are stone mortars brimming with mild, medium and spicy salsas plus radishes, dried chiles de árbol and lime wedges to dress up what's already plenty delicious on its own. Another sensation here is the especial, a deep-fried quesadilla with melted Monterey Jack (add charred carne asada or grilled chicken for $1). There is no seating and no alcohol, but you won't miss it with refreshing tamarindo, jamaica (hibiscus) or horchata aguas frescas, as authentic as what you'd find at a Mexican roadside stand. 

Photo: Boro Magazine

32-07 34th Ave., 718-406-9431, Astoria, Queens
Astoria has long been considered New York City's main destination for Greek food, but today its culinary offerings are all over the map, including this fantastic, upscale Mexican restaurant (which did, in fact, take over a Greek place). The first Maizal debuted in Rosebank, Staten Island, and owner Leonel Zelaya brought the same formula here earlier this year: guacamole, quesadillas, tacos and fajitas made with fresh, top-notch ingredients by executive chef Wilmer Alejandro Santos. Vegetarians and vegans are tended to via chiles rellenos and vegetable-filled enchiladas with tomatillo sauce. And budget-conscious margarita lovers will be glad to know happy hour at the bar lasts all night Tuesday–Thursday as well all day Sunday, when they're just $5 (Friday–Saturday happy hour is limited to 4–7pm). Another deal to look into on weeknights is the $19 three-course prix fixe.

Photo: Otto Cedeno

Otto's Tacos
141 Second Ave., 646-678-4018, East Village, Manhattan
Otto's Tacos is such a smart operation that it's easy to imagine it replicating like Chipotle has. So far there is just one busy location in the East Village, a wood-clad storefront with one communal table and a handful of stools overlooking a station where corn tortillas are pressed to order on an efficient turntable device. Owner Otto Cedeno is a California expat who saw it as his mission to improve New York City's taco offerings; it's been pretty much crowded as a rush-hour elevator since he opened last year. Summertime sidewalk seating has eased things up. Carne asada is a standout, the seasoned beef nicely charred and piled on a coarse, thicker-than-usual tortilla with diced white onion and cilantro. Match it with an order of masa fries: golden, crunchy strips worth double dipping in a fiery chipotle mayo. Most of the dishware is recyclable, something you wish every fast-casual restaurant would do.

Photo: Kate Glicksberg

Tacos Matamoros
4508 Fifth Ave., 718-871-7627, Sunset Park, Brooklyn
Bodegas selling five avocados for $5 and hilly, green Sunset Park are two reasons to head to this predominantly Latin American enclave in Brooklyn this summer. Another reason is Tacos Matamoros, a festive, family-friendly restaurant with aisles wide enough for kids to zoom around on scooters. Walls are painted in dark green and red, the colors of the Mexican flag, and the open kitchen frames cooks busily assembling giant burritos, enchiladas and their namesake tacos, the best of which are stuffed with char-grilled carne asada or chorizo. Tripe, beef tongue and steamed, seasoned cow head are here for Anthony Bourdain–type followers. Picky youngsters can opt for chicken nuggets with french fries. Frozen margaritas by the glass or pitcher are another good bargain.


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