Los Tacos No. 1 and Los Mariscos in Chelsea Market

los tacos no. 1
adobada (marinated pork) and carne asada (grilled steak) tacos

Everyone likes to bash Mexican food in NYC, but you can actually get very good tacos at the Los Tacos No. 1 stand in Chelsea Market. That, of course, involves having to be at Chelsea Market and shoving elbows with the tourists for space and seating. And speaking of which, there really are no seats at Los Tacos No. 1, so you have to make do with the standing booths that are scattered throughout the market. It’s not going to be a comfortable experience, but the spectacular adobada marinated pork tacos will make you feel better about dealing with the chaos. Everyone likes to pair their tacos with guac and chips, and while the guac at Los Tacos No. 1 is very good, the chips aren’t hot and fresh.Read More

All-Day Mexican Fare at Atla

the light, airy and spacious dining room at atla

Enrique Olvera’s Cosme is one of the best restaurants in the city, and the duck carnitas and husk meringue are two signature dishes that I’ve raved about to others. But the high price points and fine dining atmosphere at Cosme don’t allow for frequent visits. Things are about to change now that Olvera has introduced a more accessible, casual Mexican concept called Atla in Noho. I can now enjoy Michelin-caliber cooking at reasonable prices at any time of day, and as a result, Atla is fast becoming my favorite everyday, neighborhood standby.Read More

Hipster Mexican at Mission Cantina

I decided to take a break from my work-week veganism and had dinner Friday night at Mission Cantina, Danny Bowien’s new Mexican restaurant in the LES. This restaurant needs no introduction. By dint of association with the undeniably hip Bowien brand, Mission Cantina is already drawing in the crowds and racking up popularity points. It recently ranked #1 on the Grub Street’s Restaurant Power Rankings, so you know dinner here will be a hot ticket, whether the food is good or bad.

I’m not a big fan of Mission Chinese, Bowien’s first restaurant, and I think the food there is totally overrated, but I actually like Mission Cantina. First of all, the seating situation is much more reasonable. Mission Chinese only took walk-ins and waits were like 2 hrs+, but Mission Cantina has partnered with CityEats for a very civilized online reservation system. There’s also a lot more space at Mission Cantina–you’re not jammed into communal tables, and you can actually carry on a private conversation. The noise level is lively but not too loud, and I loved the 90s R&B soundtrack playing in the background (Ashanti’s “Foolish” playing twice in one sitting??).

So let’s get to the point here–is this restaurant riding on Bowien’s hipster coattails? The short answer is yes. The Mexican food here is solid, but nothing really stands out. At least at Mission Chinese, the explosive Chonqing chicken wings and the salt cod fried rice had very distinctive flavor profiles, but the dishes at Mission Cantina lack that defining “it” factor. Bowien’s cooking is known for pushing the envelope a bit, which is why I was so surprised that, with all the cumin, cheese and crema going on, most of the food stops just short of delivering some drama.

Many people have waxed poetic about the chicken wings here, but I thought the mole dry rub on the wings was a bit too dull and dark. I almost felt like the skin had been coated in some burnt ground coffee grounds, which is a unique sensation, I suppose, but not a totally appetizing one. Crumbles of cotija cheese and pools of crema generously accompanied the chicken, as did some slices of cucumbers. You would have thought that these ingredients were supposed to enhance the dish in some way, but their flavors were so neutral that they were a bit redundant. The chicken wings themselves were perfectly cooked, which is why I kept eating them, and the expectation of a Bowien flavor effect motivated me further, but ultimately the dish did not live up to its promise.

mission cantina - chicken wings close up
chicken wings in mole spices, chili vinegar, sesame and crema

I did genuinely like the mushroom and lamb tacos. The tacos, which come two per order, are a bit on the small side, but the flavors pack a nice punch, as you would expect from Bowien’s cooking, and the fillings are appropriately rich, so you don’t feel like you’re getting shortchanged. I thought the way the hongos, or mushroom, tacos was prepared was extremely impressive–how was the kitchen able to extract so much flavor from simply browning mushrooms? The melted queso that came with it looked initially suspicious, like a microwave experiment gone awry–did someone nuke some sharp cheddar to the point of oblivion? But there’s some method to this madness. The stiff, unyielding surface of the cheese explosions forces you to eat the taco almost like a tostada. This allows for more even distribution of texture and flavor, because by eating across, you get just the right doses of sharply concentrated cheese in each bite. I also liked the quality and the texture of the tortillas. They were grilled to order, leaving them nice and warm and bubbly with pleasing charred air pockets.

mission cantina - cumin lamb tacos (top) and hongos tacos (bottom)
cumin lamb tacos on top, hongos (mushroom) tacos on bottom

The cumin lamb tacos won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. The lamb is intensely gamey, although the herbed crema and smoked prune balance this out somewhat. I appreciated how the tacos really showcased the lamb flavors in a completely uninhibited way. You’ll get gaminess, you’ll get texture, you’ll get richness all in one decadent bite. It’s definitely heavy, and you’ll have lamb fat and cream overflowing from the tortilla, but that didn’t bother me for some reason.

Another slight disappointment for me was the creamed masa and beer braised collard greens. This is another dish that everyone raves about, but I thought it tasted like really good polenta and really good, spicy collard greens. I’m not sure if combining the two really created any flavor synergies. Again, I kept eating it to see if I was missing something, but it never really built up to anything amazing. It is a solid appetizer, but if you want something game changing in the masa landscape, this isn’t it.

mission cantina - creamed masa close up 2
bowl of creamed masa with beer braised collard greens

If Mission Cantina were a taco take-out restaurant, I would be here in a hot second. But for a proper sit-down Mexican dinner, this wouldn’t be my first choice. A man can’t live by tacos alone – there needs to be complementary sides, vegetables and mains to round out the meal. There is technically variety on the menu at Mission Cantina, but everything is seasoned pretty similarly, and the meal becomes very one-note. Even if you wanted to eat more, you don’t feel all that inclined to, because there’s only so much more cumin and mole you can take in one sitting. Which is a problem, since Mission Cantina is clearly not trying to deliver on authenticity, but on the interesting. If your flashy experiments can’t hold anyone’s attention, then you better rethink your kitchen strategy, since the competition in tacos is pretty fierce.

Mission Cantina
172 Orchard St (at Stanton St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 254-2233

Sedona Travels: Elote Cafe

If Portland is where young people go to retire, then Sedona, AZ is where people who have outgrown Portland go to retire. I have never been surrounded by so many free-spirited people of a certain age who are still playing in bands and creating art with such passion and energy. I had no expectations of Sedona other than as a stopover for the Grand Canyon, but I was pleasantly surprised by how quirky and unique the city and its denizens were. Maybe there’s some truth to the legend that Sedona’s energy vortexes can cast a magical spell on those who step into the city—I’ve never encountered a group of people with a happier outlook on life. The beautiful indigenous red rock canyons that make up the city landscape are visually intoxicating on their own. It may sound like hocus pocus, but I know for a fact that I was completely bewitched by this charming city.

But what about the food? Can free-spirited bohemians attract good chefs to their part of town? Unfortunately, I was disappointed to learn that this city was known more for its spirituality and less for its cuisine. The one bright spot on this otherwise unremarkable culinary scene is Elote Cafe, a popular restaurant renowned for its Mexican cuisine. This restaurant is in such demand that customers from near and far are willing to endure 2 hour waits to try the legendary food. I’m a little leery of unpredictable wait times, but I’m only in Sedona once, and there must be a reason why people put themselves through this torturous quest for a table, so I decided to put my name down for a Friday night seating.

The restaurant is strangely adjacent to a cheap looking hotel. After putting down your name (“about an hour and 15 minute wait!” chirped the hostess), you can line up to buy some drinks and eat popcorn at a separate counter to wait it out. Margaritas seemed to be the drink of choice here, so we ordered the Tradicional, a light and refreshing blend of tequila, triple sec and fresh sour. The margarita was quite lethal, in that the drink initially seemed harmless, but halfway in the alcohol hits you like a ton of bricks. Good thing I had the popcorn to counteract some of these effects, otherwise I might have passed out before dinner.

The wait ended up being 1.5 hours, which wasn’t too far off from the hostess’ ETA. For some reason, it felt longer, because everyone was trapped together in a small lounge, tensely waiting for their name to be called while hugging their margaritas. I was so weak from fatigue and annoyance when my name was finally called, but as soon as we were seated, my second wind kicked in and I wasted no time putting in our order. The house special elote was a must, as was an order of the seafood tacos, along with the highly recommended smoked pork cheeks. “Bring them as soon as they’re ready,” we commanded the waitress while grabbing a few tortilla chips from the basket to stave off a hunger rebellion.

The food came out surprisingly fast. The elote, which came out first, can best be described as a Mexican rendition of creamed corn. Only the corn used in an elote is bigger and more flavorful than a typical kernel. The fire roasted kernels have a firmness that provides the rich and thick cream sauce with some extremely satisfying texture. Elote’s namesake appetizer is fresher and homier than any cream corn you’d find at a steak house or in a can. I nearly ruined my meal sneaking in spoonfuls of this addictive substance while waiting for the other items to arrive.

Elote Cafe's signature appetizer
Elote Cafe’s signature dish
Elote Cafe's signature dish
An aerial view of the elote

The seafood tacos didn’t have the same mesmerizing effect. I was expecting something a little less heavy-handed in the preparation of the seafood. A little bit of salt and lime juice, maybe, but not much else. Fresh seafood is so extraordinary in its original form, and I think that these natural flavors should be emphasized as opposed to being masked in very heavy, smoky sauces, which is what happened with Elote’s tacos. Objectively speaking, the tacos were well prepared, but I would have preferred a little more simplicity in presentation.

seafood tacos
seafood tacos

Pork meat, on the other hand, is a hearty and robust protein that shines when paired with in-your-face spices and smoked flavors, which is why the smoked pork cheeks were so successful. I was impressed by how tender the cheeks were, a cross between fall-off-the bone braised meat with a little more firmness akin to traditional loin. Who knew the sides of a pork’s mouth could yield such tender and flavorful cuts of meat? The pork cheeks were arranged on top of a corn cake, served with a chile-based sauce. The mealy corn cake prevented the dish from being too heavy and salty, and it also absorbed the smoky flavors of the sauce extremely well.

smoked pork cheekssmoked pork cheeks

rice and beans
rice and beans

At the end of my meal, where I was under the spell of a satisfying food coma, I didn’t regret my decision to wait for a table at all. I’m convinced that Sedona not only has spiritual powers but gastric ones as well, channeled by the nourishing, soulful cuisine at Elote Cafe.

Elote Cafe
771 State Route 179
Sedona, AZ 86336
(928) 203-0105

**If you do decide to make it out to Sedona, please consider checking into the Lantern Light Inn (http://www.lanternlightinn.com/). This bed and breakfast is run by Ed and Kris, an extremely hospitable couple who are so kind and welcoming. The rooms here are extremely reasonable at $119 per night for a two-person room.