I love New York the way any reasonable Californian should. I pay respect to the sumptuous piles of Jewish deli pastrami, New York pizza, and halal chicken & rice that I go through on any given NYC excursion. I listen to Wu-Tang and Nas in equal measure as I try to decipher a Metro Subway map. I inwardly represent that “NOSTRAND AVE” anytime I find myself on the L going into Brooklyn.
In short, I fully acknowledge that New York City is a wondrous place that deserves all the awe and spectacle that it’s afforded. However, I always hesitate to agree when people label NYC as the greatest city in the country, or the world. Sure, it’s awesome and it’s a guaranteed good time if you have a wad of cash and a group of natives to hang out with. But, as any reasonable Californian should, I can’t co-sign on any certificate of greatness when the city in question sucks so hard at Mexican food.
No city can truly take the crown as the greatest in America until they master the cuisine of their southern neighbors. I truly believe that the Mexicans have learned the nirvana of marination and spice. It’s also the flagship cuisine of the backstage crew of the American song and dance. Until you master the Mexican, you can’t call yourself the Mecca of America.
I consider myself spoiled to experience such a wide range of good Mexican, even outside the traditional border states. The Bay Area and San Diego have a great array of burrito options, Los Angeles has the best tacos I’ve ever had, and even Chicago and Seattle have surprised me with their takes on fine Mexican dining. New York is the only city that has failed this litmus test…to my admitted relief, if there were good tacos in Midtown, I might’ve cancelled my return flight and tried my hand at making it in that meatgrinder of a city.
Now, New York is the food capital of the U.S. The stats, Michelin stars, and personal experience have convinced me of this assertion. It just sucks at Mexican food. It really does. Every city has its strengths and weaknesses. San Francisco is great at a lot of cuisines, but its Korean options suck dog dick. New York has passable Korean to go along with its array of heavenly dining experiences, but it just isn’t schooled in enough Mexican culture to figure out how to properly make a simple plate of tacos.
From my personal experience: My first visit to New York, I stayed in the Upper West Side with my two college buddies on W. 70th. There was a nice little bistro-looking place on the corner of W. 70th and Columbus…or was it Amsterdam? Anyway, it caught my eye because the place advertised “San Francisco Mission Style Burritos” in golden letters set in a classic deli font. Normally, I try not to indulge in hometown cravings when I’m traveling, but Mexican is one of the few things I’ll try no matter where I am. Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle have served me well with SOTB cuisine, why not New York?
This is why not New York. The bistro was papered with clichéd décor that looks secondhand from a Chevy’s garage sale. Willfully ignoring the clash between my idea of a proper Mexican joint and what this travesty was, I ordered two things, the plate of carne asada tacos and the carnitas burrito.
As for the tacos – The corn tortillas tear and break under the weight of mediocre filling, which contains bland or mushy meats choking under a pile of radioactive green guac and plastic salsa.
As for the burrito – The papery flour tortilla meshes with the rubbery layer of too-sharp cheese, probably sourced from some overzealous artisans in Williamsburg. The beans feel like they’ve been refried and vomited out from a dog, mixed in with a red rice mixture that looks Spanish but tastes Chinese, and a stringy pile of carnitas forming the core of disappointment. Fuck this shit. Seriously.
It’s not just this isolated and solipsistic incident. Every Californian transplant I’ve polled has told me that the Mexican fare in New York is one of its few weaknesses. It might be the inferiority complex that festers in West Coaster minds when we’re up against both brash and patronizing New York arrogance, but we’re kind of glad that New York doesn’t know how to do something that’s so defiantly Western. It lets us know that the “greatest city in the world” fumbles when it comes making something so simple, so hard to fuck up, and so symbolic of the evolved American landscape.
Now, New York has been the gateway to some fattening Category 1 meals for me. I know that I can’t get good Jewish deli food, Carribbean oxtail, falafels, cheap or fine Italian fare, and countless other culinary fineries outside of NYC. It’s a hell of a city that I wouldn’t mind giving some years to.
But I think, as any reasonable Californian should, it should calm the fuck down on this whole “greatest city in the world” thing until it learns how to make a fucking taco.