By Ed Avis
Like other big cities, New York has had a thriving Mexican restaurant scene for decades. Mexicans and other Latin immigrants have added their cuisines to the Big Apple’s culinary mix since they arrived, and non-Latinos have long joined the scene with their own interpretations.
But another trend has emerged. Chefs and restaurateurs who recognize that Mexico is home to a vast cuisine that has been inadequately represented in the United States are striving to show Americans what can really be done with the tastes from south of the border.
Here are profiles of five New Yorkers who are reshaping that city’s scene, from native Mexicans seeking a taste of home to native New Yorkers who feel Mexican cuisine is broader than what typical Mexican restaurants serve.
When Mexico City native Roberto Santibañez opened Fonda in Brooklyn in 2009, he
was already a veteran chef. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Santibañez had founded three fine dining restaurants in his home city and served five years as culinary director for Rosa Mexicano restaurants, based in Manhattan.
“When we first opened Fonda, there was no Mexican restaurant I could recall that did what I wanted to do, that showcased the foods that I wanted to showcase,” he says. “I wanted a restaurant that takes on the traditional knowledge and adds a modernistic view and presentation that make it more likeable to my public.”
The result? A frequently changing menu that blends tradition with innovation. A few examples: Ensalada e Aguacate y Zanahorias (a salad made with avocados, roasted carrots, toasted pecans, goat cheese, sprouts and lettuce); Chile Relleno de Verduras (a roasted poblano pepper filled with carrots, zucchini, corn kernels, pickled jalapeños, and cheese); and variations on classic guacamole, such as guac with peaches and grapes.
Santibañez says the most popular dishes, however, are classics: enchiladas suizas and enchiladas de mole. Perhaps that speaks to Santibañez’s desire to have his restaurants—there are now three Fonda locations—seem like neighborhood hang-outs.
“More than anything, when we open a restaurant, we look for neighborhoods,” he says. “We are not necessarily a destination place with fancy décor and architectural food. We have down-to-earth food you can eat every day without having to spend $80 on it. The neighborhood we opened the first Fonda in, Park Slope, is home to a bunch of artists, writers, editors, and other intellectuals like that. It’s a neighborhood full of great people who are great going-outers and great eaters. If you don’t have great eaters, who will you sell the beautiful food to?”
Santibañez envisions more restaurants. He is working on one in Washington, D.C. scheduled to open this fall, and he feels there is plenty of room for more Fondas in New York.
“New York is just booming with Mexican food,” he says. “We say without any racial implications that white people like Mexican food more than we do!”
When Barbara Sibley opened La Palapa in 2000, she taught her staff how to explain the
dishes carefully. Mexican food wasn’t new to the diners, of course, but what Sibley was selling definitely was.
“My goal was to have people have a very full experience of Mexican cuisine,” says Sibley, who, like Santibañez, is from Mexico City. “But even after 16 years I’ve barely scratched the surface. The cuisine is so broad.”
What Sibley serves does not sound particularly exotic today, but for diners accustomed to “New York Tex Mex,” as she calls it, dishes like Jicama Picante (jicama seasoned with chile piquin, lime, and salt) and Elote del Mercado (corn on the cob with lime, mayo, chile piquin, and queso cotija) were virtually unknown when she opened her restaurant.
“People didn’t know that Mexican food could involve fresh flavors,” she says. “They didn’t know you could have a jicama salad.”
Sibley also introduced diners to pre-Hispanic Mexican ingredients. For example, duck and quail dishes are arguably more “authentic” to Mexico than chicken, which arrived in Mexico with the Spanish.
“People said we were ‘snobby’ for being a Mexican restaurant that served quail, but I wanted people to understand the history of the cuisine,” she explains.
Today Sibley’s cuisine is still cutting-edge fresh. She makes her own chorizo, from grinding the pork to seasoning it with chiles and vinegar, and serves a nopales salad made with grilled cactus and radishes mixed with greens and seasoned with lime juice and homemade queso fresco. Her breakfast menu includes Huevos Motulenos, a Yucatecan specialty of two eggs on top of crisp corn tortillas with a sauce of fresh sweet peas, ham, and charred tomato, and Huevos en Chalupas, poached eggs and chile guajillo chorizo in corn masa “boats” topped with poblano crema.
Sibley’s talents are not confined to La Palapa. She recently opened Taco Bar in the Urbanspace Vanderbilt Food Market in Midtown, where she can introduce a new customer base to her cooking with tacos like one with corn, avocado, and beans and another with oyster mushrooms and cheese. And she’s the creative director at Holiday Cocktail Lounge next door to La Palapa, where she invents fun cocktails with a variety of agave spirits.
The days of explaining every Mexican dish on La Palapa’s menu are over. “These days we need to do much less explaining, much less teaching,” Sibley says. “Now people are willing to experiment, they’re not afraid. It makes it a lot more fun to be a chef.”
Shauna Page and Fernando Ruiz
Shauna Page and Fernando Ruiz were not established chefs or restaurateurs when they
launched their business, Nixtamal Tortilleria, in 2009. Page was a business consultant and Ruiz was, and still is, a New York City firefighter. But like Sibley and Santibañez, they felt New York was missing something when it came to Mexican food—in their case, tortillas made with nixtamalized corn.
“Fernando is Mexican-American and felt that Mexican food around here was missing the primary ingredient, which was a corn tortilla,” Page says. “Fire fighters work 24-hour shifts [with 48 hours off], so they have days available to work a second job. And I was a business consultant for Fortune 100 companies, but when the economy went down in 2008, I went on independent status. So we put together a business plan to start a tortilla business, and we made our first tortillas in 2009.”
Page and Ruiz found the corn tortilla-making equipment they needed in Mexico, and they source the corn from Rovey Seed Co. in Farmersville, Illinois. The nixtamalization process involves boiling the corn and soaking it in an alkali solution, which makes it more easily ground and increases its flavor and nutritional value.
“You can’t make good nixtamal from just any corn,” Page explains. “You need something with good absorption.”
The tortillas Ruiz and Page created tasted so good that their little business soon attracted the attention of fine restaurants throughout New York, and today they sell them to about 90 restaurants, including 50 or so Mexican restaurants.
But their story doesn’t end there. Ruiz and Page realized that the steady stream of customers coming in for the corn tortillas represented another opportunity. So they opened a taqueria they call Nixtamal Taqueria inside the tortilleria. They started with tacos and tamales based on recipes from Ruiz’s uncle Francisco Manitas, who helps them in the business. Other recipes emerged when employees brought interesting food they had made at home that caught Page’s attention.
Consequently, the tacos they serve are traditional—al pastor, carnitas, cochinita pibil. Customers can buy the tacos singly, or they can order the Taco Molcajete, where the taco-making ingredients are served in a hot molcajete so customers can build their own tacos. Of course, the freshly made authentic corn tortillas make every one of the tacos special.
“I think we set ourselves apart simply because everything is all natural, nothing is out of the can,” Page says. “That really goes hand-in-hand with the fact that we make the tortillas. We have been voted the best taco in New York.”
Page says the wholesale tortillas are still their main source of revenue, and they plan to open a larger plant in the coming year, which will allow them to grow the restaurant beyond its current 30 seats. Nevertheless, the food is what gets the most attention.
“The draw is the tortillas, but the food is what makes them talk,” she says. “The reputation of the restaurant has grown beyond our expectations.”
Like Santibañez and Sibley, Marc Meyer was a veteran chef by the time he opened his
current Mexican establishment, Rosie’s in the East Village. Unlike Santibañez and Sibley, Meyer did not grow up in Mexico.
“I tell people I’m the least likely person to do a Mexican restaurant, because I’m a Jew from Long Island,” Meyer says. “My interest started when I was a student at UC Berkeley, going to a little café and getting eggs poached in black beans with a green salsa. That was revelatory.”
Meyer’s fascination with Mexican cuisine grew in the early 1980s when he
worked beside Mexicans in various New York kitchens.
“Someone would bring something wrapped in aluminum foil from home as a snack, and it was shared, and you’d be ‘Oh my God, this is fantastic! Bring some more!’”
Meyer’s exposure to Mexican food advanced from snacks in tin foil to meals at his Mexican co-workers’ homes, and eventually to visits to their hometowns in Puebla.
“Then I realized that this is one of the greatest cuisines of the world,” he says. “And it’s so under-represented in its variety and its complexity and its range and the style in which it’s done. The more I traveled there and ate it and saw it, the more I realized how poorly represented and conveyed and executed it was here, especially in New York. So I decided that was the direction I wanted to take.”
By the time Meyer and his wife, Vicki Freeman, opened Rosie’s in 2015, they already owned three other highly regarded New York restaurants, Cookshop, Hundred Acres, and Vic’s. Those restaurants feature sustainable, fresh ingredients sourced from local farms, and the menu at Rosie’s similarly evokes a street market, albeit in Mexico.
“I rarely go to restaurants when I go to Mexico—I go to marketplaces,” says Meyer, who counts famed Mexican food authority Diana Kennedy as a muse. “When you pass through the marketplace there are little food stalls, and there’s a lady there with a propane burner or charcoal burner and a big comal, and you sit there on a milk crate and eat whatever comes off that comal, like chiccaron or pulled chicken or a fried egg or what have you. So I wanted to be able to give our customers a variety of those little things that everyone eats in the marketplace, rather than trying to elevate it or refine it.”
Rosie’s menu reveals Meyer’s success at that: Dishes range from Tlacoyos (black bean filled masa, charred poblano rajas, tomatillo salsa, queso fresco) to Pozole de Pollo (braised chicken and heirloom corn stew, chiles, onions, cilantro, radish) to Esquites de Calabaza (roasted butternut squash, cotija, chipotle mayonesa, lime).
Meyer says he’s not sure if he’ll reproduce Rosie’s in other locations or keep it a one-off.
“My idea is to try to achieve something here first, before mass producing it.”
Like Meyer, Alex Stupak is not Mexican and does not appear to be a likely Mexican
restaurant chef. In the early 2000s Stupak was a pastry chef at Alinea, the 3-Michelin- star restaurant in Chicago, a position that conceivably prepared him for a career in any upscale cuisine he chose. But his mother-in-law is Mexican, so he was eating Mexican food at home, and over the course of several years he realized that the cuisine was full of possibilities.
So in 2011 he launched Empellón, a Mexican restaurant that takes the cuisine on a joy ride of creativity.
“When people say, ‘He went from creative to Mexican,’ they don’t really know what creativity means,” Stupak says. “In my definition, creativity is doing what you don’t know how to do.”
While the food at Empellón—there are now three locations and a fourth on the way—is decidedly Mexican, Stupak creates dishes that stand on their own without relying on a diner’s preconceptions of what Mexican food should be.
“I feel that we aggressively work against stereotypes, and we do that in many different ways,” Stupak says. “I find often that Mexican restaurants outside of Mexico try so hard to physically boast of how Mexican they are. That’s a little odd to me. I can go to a great restaurant and get pasta but don’t hear Italian music playing or see décor that is overly ethnic. So I think at Empellón we cook American food that is highly informed and inspired by a system of cooking that our brothers and sisters to the south have galvanized and codified over four centuries.”
Stupak’s creative take on south-of-the-border cuisine leads to dishes such as Prawns with Chintestle Mayonnaise, which features chintestle, a paste made from dried shrimp and chiles, mixed into a mayonnaise and served with fresh shrimp; Queso Fundido with Black Trumpet Mushrooms and Guaje Seeds; and Blood Sopes, which are boats of masa that has been rehydrated with pig’s blood, filled with blood sausage and fava beans, and topped with mint salsa verde, crema, and cotija cheese.
You get the idea—not your typical combo platter.
That being said, Stupak does not want customers to be intimidated, so he does serve familiar offerings like margaritas and guacamole, just exquisite versions of them.
"I’d rather give customers a comfortable portal, but at a very high level. So if I serve someone a margarita and that gets them over time to try tasting other things, that’s the reason we do it.”
The New York Mexican scene—at least at the level these five restaurateurs contribute to it—is befitting a great food city like New York. They are teaching a city the depth of possibility in Mexican cuisine.
Ed Avis is the publisher of el Restaurante.