Eating out Mexican is one of the few true values in New York’s getting-even-more-ridiculous dining scene. Every borough has cheap, genuine, hole-in-the-wall spots like Tulcingo Del Valle in the neighborhood I grew up in.
That’s why I’m supremely disturbed by the emergence of quasi-upscale Mexican restaurants. I’m not saying Mexican people aren’t allowed to be fancy, but um…I still want the cheap, giant portions, of flavorful food. I mean, that’s half the point, right? No one has ever decided on Mexican dinner because they’re not especially hungry. And this fancified Mexcian food scene has brought a truly unwelcome development: chips and salsa that must be paid for. In money. #$!%@!
This will not stand.
Everyone in my new hood, Fort Greene, talks about two Mexican joints: Pequena and Bonita. I’ve eaten at both of these now and they serve decent, if not exciting food that falls short in three crucial aspects:
– Small portions
– Lack of spice
– Served by white people
Basically, everything a Mexican restaurant should not be. Seriously, is this Brooklyn or Kansas? What’s going on here?
But here’s the kicker: both places CHARGE for chips and salsa. This is just untenable. Free chips and salsa is like a golden rule of eating out. It’s half the reason I usually choose Mexican. It is just expected, OK? If I walk into a Mexican restaurant, and don’t get that basket and bowl placed in front of me without laying down an extra $4.50, well, I think you get the point – I won’t be happy. Frank Bruni says an empty wine glass is his version of restaurant hell, well no free chips and salsa is mine.
So I recently ate at a well-reviewed Mexican place in SoHo called Cafe el Portal. This place was pretty cool – teeny underground restaurant, genuine menu, Mexican-owned and operated. Although a little overpriced, it had some crazy dishes I could get behind, like a chile relleno covered in pomegranate seeds. While this inventive menu distracted me for two to three minutes after sitting down, I soon noticed something off. There was just a certain lack of greasiness on my hands and spiciness in my mouth.