On Beyond Tacos
February 18, 2014 7:59 AM   Subscribe

I've recently realized that due to having lived only on the northern east coast of the US, I am not very knowledgeable about Mexican cuisine beyond what's bled over into "Tex-Mex". Can you point me at resources to help me expand what I know?

Tacos, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, and tostadas I've had elsewhere and made for myself. Tamales I've had, but not made; chilles rellenos and mole sauce I've heard about, but not ever tried. And that is the extent of my knowledge. There's probably more, right? Different regional dishes, stews, big-ass meat preparations, smaller sweets, things like that?

I'm interested in really good, authoritative web sites and cookbooks I could browse to expand my knowledge (assume I have "advanced intermediate" cooking skills - I am very comfortable in a kitchen and have the courage to follow a funky recipe, and often "learn-by-doing" - I've taught myself Japanese cooking that way - but I don't have the resources to be hand-pressing my own corn tortillas or slaughtering my own pigs).

Bonus if you can also point me to especially accurate restaurants in NYC, or food markets which would also help me out (I know more about how to source a lot more Carribbean ingredients than I would Mexican here).

posted by EmpressCallipygos to Food & Drink (34 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
I like Rick Bayless - here are some of his recipes
posted by exogenous at 8:07 AM on February 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Diana Kennedy is sometimes called the Julia Child of Mexican Cuisine, and her The Essential Cuisines of Mexico is generally considered to be one of the bibles of presenting local Mexican dishes to US audiences (it's actually three books in one).

but I don't have the resources to be hand-pressing my own corn tortillas

Just out of curiosity, why not? It doesn't take much more than a flat surface, a rolling pin, and a hot pan or even an electric griddle.
posted by muddgirl at 8:08 AM on February 18, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: For authoritative Mexican cuisine anything by Diana Kennedy is a good start. As for Tex-Mex I recommend this by Robb Walsh...
posted by jim in austin at 8:09 AM on February 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yep, Diana Kennedy is the writer I was going to suggest too.
posted by purpleclover at 8:09 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Mexican Eats column at Serious Eats should point you to good places in NYC.

As for specific dishes, get yourself some pozole (a tasty, spicy stew) posthaste. This venue appears to be reputable.
posted by Maecenas at 8:13 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Tortas and pozole are what I mostly ate in DF. And cheap donuts.

In Merida there are a lot of pork dishes. Cochinita pibil, Poc Chuc, etc. There's also turkey dishes, which I didn't see in DF.

In northern MX there is carne seca, sun dried beef, and machada, a sort of burrito like dish that it is served in.

Nopales (cactus) are pretty good. I've had that in all three places.

There are some ok taco places in NYC, and a handful of good fancy mex fusion places, but not any great 'authentic' mexican cuisine. (although tacos are pretty authentically mexican. paying $8 for one isn't) Mesa Coyoacan in Williamsburg is the closest you get to good, authentic non-taco mexican food.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 8:15 AM on February 18, 2014

Oh, and as for ingredients, there's this post on SE but it might be out of date, as it's from 2010.
posted by Maecenas at 8:17 AM on February 18, 2014

If you're interested in the history of Mexican food in the US, this book is quite good.
posted by Runes at 8:19 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh you must visit Homesick Texan. A wealth of information and she's based out of NYC.
posted by WalkingHorse at 8:26 AM on February 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, pozole! I've made pozole too - I forgot all about that. But definitely I'll check out what is probably a more trustworthy source than the particular cookbook I used.

And as for "why not pressing your own tortillas" - I lack the upper-arm strength to be doing that with just a rolling pin, I'm afraid.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:28 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Check out Pati Jinich. She has a blog, cookbook, and tv show on PBS.
posted by gudrun at 8:29 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sorry if I put you on the spot! I don't usually make fresh tortillas either.
posted by muddgirl at 8:33 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I did a search on Carniceria, which is "Butcher Shop" in Spanish. I linked to one in Brooklyn, but it's more than a bodega.

Every culture butchers the animal in a different way, so you may want to buy the authentic cut of meat for your recipies. You can also get the masa maize or masa harina and other ancillary ingredients that you may need there as well.

I have found that the H-mart in my neighborhood has a BUNCH of Mexican brands and ingredients, even the arcane stuff like Nopales and Jicama and other Mexican produce. H-Mart is a Korean grocer, but BOY do they know their neighborhoods.

There is Mexican regional cooking as well. The coastal states are seafood oriented, and the border states are different than the interior states. So explore the different cuisines of Mexico.

As for tortillas, it should take NO strength to roll them out. I learned how to do it by slapping them back and forth in my hands, but the dough should be nice and spongy and easy to manipulate, either way.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:38 AM on February 18, 2014

A tortilla press is really cheap (even cheaper if you go to restaurant shops in the Bowery). I've found masa harina at a few markets, most recently the grocery/produce store inside Chelsea Market. Fresh corn tortillas make a HUGE difference. With the press and sufficiently wet dough, it's really simple to make them. Chelsea Market is decent for getting Mexican items, and Dickson's Farmstand has a wonderful selection of meats if you want to do something like carnitas.

Seconding Rick Bayless, Authentic Mexican is a good starting book. If you ever find yourself in Chicago, his restaurants are amaaaaazing.

If you haven't been, definitely go to La Esquina (the speakeasy-style restaurant underground is fun, but the street-level taco stand and cafe serve the same food). Get the elotes.

Also, pickled onions are amazing and super easy.
posted by melissasaurus at 8:40 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just out of curiosity, why not? It doesn't take much more than a flat surface, a rolling pin, and a hot pan or even an electric griddle.

You can usually find masa at Mexican markets, but masa harina should be easy to find at a good market, or you can get Bob's Red Mill corn flour at Whole Foods. (Just make sure you get the corn flour, not corn meal.)

On preview, I have some dexterity issues so I understand the difficulty of working with doughs; masa is mire like a paste, so using the bottom of a heavy pan also works, if that's doable for you.
posted by Room 641-A at 8:41 AM on February 18, 2014

Crap, I was too slow. Didn't mean to pile on about the tortillas.
posted by Room 641-A at 8:42 AM on February 18, 2014

This doesn't quite answer your exact question, but the next time you see "cochinita pibil" on a menu, get some. I'm from SoCal but only discovered it recently, and it was amazing.

Also, for some reason mole seems to taste really good on turkey. Better than on pork, and better, I think, than on chicken.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:50 AM on February 18, 2014

I went off to find this thread (and misremembered this thread having a Mexican suggestion, but no, just Spain and Puerto Rico) and come back to find Homesick Texan already suggested.

As someone who just ate her weight and then some in Mexican and Tex-Mex during my recent visit back to Texas & the southwest, I cannot heartily second Homesick Texan enough.
posted by romakimmy at 9:01 AM on February 18, 2014

I also grew up east of the Mississippi, and I didn't realize that Mexican-influenced food is entirely different once you hit central Texas. Tacos de lengua (warning: tongue) minced ceviche, and once you hit California there's carne asada burritos and fries. More fresh ingredients, more corn tortillas, more lime, less cheese and salt.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:06 AM on February 18, 2014

Response by poster: I'm a bit leery of Homesick Texan, and other Tex-Mex sites, as I just plain don't know enough to know which of her stuff would be more "Texas" or "Tex-mex" as opposed to straight-up Mexican. Is there a quick-and-dirty rule of thumb to parse that difference?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:16 AM on February 18, 2014

Check out the Robb Walsh book linked above (or many of his columns online) for more info on what's considered Tex-Mex. He's the expert, if there is one.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:22 AM on February 18, 2014

Best answer: Quick and dirty rules of thumb to rapidly ID tex-mex would be the presence of flour tortillas, cheddar cheese/Velveeta, margaritas and only one kind of sauce (red with ground beef).
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 9:28 AM on February 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Tex Mex also has a lot of cumin spiced dishes, which is not found in most (any?) regional Mexican food.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 9:32 AM on February 18, 2014

Best answer: I've heard good things about Tortilleria Nixtamal in Queens. Also, you can buy fresh tortillas.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:41 AM on February 18, 2014

Nthing Rick Bayless. I live in LA where great Mexican food is everywhere, but I got this Rick Bayless cookbook for Christmas and am LOVING IT.

There are tons of great more immigrant-community facing Mexican restaurants popping up all the time in NYC. Mostly in the outer boroughs. Just about any old school non-fancy taco truck will do, as well. Take a wander around Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and you're sure to find lots of great Mexican food.

Specific EmpressCallypigos recommendation, because I know your neighborhood: Castro's. Their mole and chiles rellenos are delicious, their tres leches cake comes highly recommended by people who definitely know their Mexican cuisine, and while I'm not sure how specifically "authentic" their breakfasts are, I would fly across the country right now to eat breakfast there. Their chilaquiles are mindblowing, but also try their take on huevos rancheros, which is nothing like the usual tex-mex omelette + salsa disaster.
posted by Sara C. at 9:51 AM on February 18, 2014

Bayless and Kennedy are great, but if you get done with them and want a little extra credit, I surprised myself by LOVING Frieda's Fiestas, a cookbook/history of Frieda Kahlo written at least partly with Guadalupe Rivera (Diego's daughter). The photography is beautiful, the recipes are good to decent and not only is Frida just a fascinating character, you get a good sense of some of the spirit of food in Mexican culture: family and friends being just as important as masa harina. Also, good variety of recipes from different parts of Mexico. There's a simple tomato Lima bean soup from there I still make regularly, though I gave my copy to someone ages ago...
posted by theweasel at 10:46 AM on February 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Random tortilla note: Whether flour or corn tortillas are more authentic depends on which region of Mexico you're talking about. In northern states (like Sonora) flour is actually the traditional thing because that is where wheat was/is grown (and hence what easily got adopted into Texas/Southwest cooking and then watered down into Tex-Mex). Still, a good Mexican flour tortilla is nothing like the bland, pancake-like U.S. supermarket version. The real ones are really thin, translucent when you hold them to the light and have a delicious elasticity.

Saveur's Six Essential Mexican Cookbooks (Including one about desserts!)

The diversity of ingredients and cooking techniques across the regions of Mexico is mindblowing so it's great to think regionally as people are suggesting.

La Gran Cocina Latina is not quite what you're looking for now because it does not focus solely on Mexico, but it is an exhaustive look at all that influenced the cuisines of Central and South America and the Caribbean. It's great for both really specific, authentic recipes with great background story and learning about the "big picture" of why there are similarities and variations across Latin American cooking.
posted by dahliachewswell at 11:15 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just popping in to say that, yes, Mexican food is highly regional. And the food of each region is driven by the local ingredients. This is just something to keep in mind. Something like cochinita pibil is distinctly Yucatecan for example, as is Pipian. You don't see it as much in the US because there hasn't been as much immigration from Yucatan as from other regions.

Tamales, for example, vary across Mexico, usually tied to whatever the local native tribes were making. In the state of Michoacan, you have the big doughy corundas and the sweet, delicious tamale de elote and the zarzamoras (blueberry tamales)

There are undervalued things in Mexican cuisine such as the enormous amount of Mexican soups. This can broadly include the Menudos and Pozoles as well. There's also Mexican sweets. And, finally the drinks. Not just agua frescas but atoles and horchatas.

In general, traditional Mexican food is simple and ingredient-driven and fresh. If you have never had a freshly made (hot off the oven/grill) corn or flour tortilla, you're in for a treat.
posted by vacapinta at 11:46 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

In NYC you are mostly going to find Pueblan regional dishes.
posted by Sara C. at 11:49 AM on February 18, 2014

Best answer: I really like Homesick Texan -- I went to school with her! and I love reading her blog -- but that's Tex-Mex food.

Do you not have true Mexican restaurants at all? I'm having a hard time even understanding that -- you poor thing! Other people have chimed in with cookbook recommendations. I'm not familiar with them, but honestly the names Kennedy and Bayless aren't making me feel hopeful. Instead, I'll give you some names of dishes to give you a small idea of what all is out there.

Interesting ingredients:
- Peppers: Mulato, poblano and ancho, pasilla, jalapeno and chipotle, anaheim, serrano, de arbol
- Produce: Avocados, zucchini, tomatoes, onion, lime, corn, chayote, cilantro, jicama, tomatillos, tamarind, pepitas, nopales, plantains (not the same as a banana at all), red bananas
- Cheese: Queso panela, cotija, Chihuahua, and blanco
- Other: Oregano, chocolate, masa, piloncillo

For drinks, try: Rice drink, Fruit- and flower-flavored light punch, a sweet-sour drink, frozen lime cocktail, beer with spices and lime

Make these sauces to eat with foods or to cook meats in: Fresh salsa, uncooked salsa, green sauce, avocado dip, mole, adobo sauce

Soup, sandwiches: A "has everything" soup with hominy, soup for when you are hung over not not feeling well, chicken and avocado soup, all manner of sandwiches

Rice and beans, of course: Beans and refried beans, rice, rice cooked with red tomatoes, rice cooked with tomatillos, chicken with rice, seafood with rice

Breakfast: Ranch-style eggs, scrambled eggs with beans or sausage

Salad and light things: Pickled fish, prickly pear salad

Meats: Chicken marinated in rum, Roasted/fried pork to eat in by itself or in tortillas, Yucatan red snapper

Chips: Chips made with fried plantains, fried yuca

Desserts: Rice pudding, coconut ice cream, anything with a drizzle of caramel, donut-like cookies
posted by Houstonian at 5:57 PM on February 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Queso oaxaca for quesidallas is how my Mexican mother in law makes them. I've never had cheese like it before.

My father in law made me my favourite hangover cure, very spicy chilaquiles.

My wife often puts ground chile and lemon on mango, pineapple, apple, and basically any other fruit.

My favourite food from Mexico is esquites.
posted by Admira at 10:24 PM on February 18, 2014

Guadalupana Deli Grocery (Su Tienda Mexicana), on Broadway at 159 Street, sells a range of Mexican groceries, from Oaxacan cheese to nopales to tamarind candies, etc etc. They seem always to have perfectly ripe avocados, too. I'm no expert, but the sopes, chilaquiles, huaraches and tacos al pastor at the attached "Victoria" restaurant stand up to comparison to the kind of street food I enjoy in Oaxaca and the DF.
posted by jcrcarter at 8:42 AM on February 19, 2014

Best answer: Lots of great recommendations here, nthing Diana Kennedy. When it gets a little warmer, you might also like to try making paletas, or Mexican popsicles. I just got back from Tulum and they have an amazing paleta shop there. Mango with salsa chamoy, mmmmm...
posted by Concordia at 2:55 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So my birthday's coming up, and when my mum asked if there was anything in particular I wanted I used the chance to tell her about Diana Kennedy's books. I'll also make note of the restaurants for the taste-education as well.

posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:24 AM on February 20, 2014

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