Getting a Chip Off My Shoulder


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.

No chips and salsa! I looked down and there they were again, ON THE MENU. FOR MONEY.

We cannot tolerate this, eaters! It may not seem like a big deal to some of you, but the next thing you know, they’ll be charging for bread and butter at Italian restaurants, there will be no more comps of wasabi and ginger with your sushi, and ketchup packets at McD’s will go for a quarter a pop. Oh, and just so you know, calling it “pico de gallo” instead of “salsa” does not make it charge-worthy.

Rise up now, people. Chips and salsa deserve to be free!

Pequena: 86 S. Portland Ave., Brooklyn, NY 718.643.0000,

Bonita: 243 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn, NY , 718.622.5300,

Cafe el Portal: 174 Elizabeth St., New York, NY, 10012, 212.226.4642

Photo: Foodhoe

Café El Portal in New York

Pequeña in Brooklyn

Bonita in Brooklyn

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  • gansie February 29, 2008  

    although technically i don’t know if this can be tagged as an “ES Op Ed,” because, hey, we are the “Ed” but anyway, very valid point about the pay to play chips and salsa. eff that!

  • gansie February 29, 2008  

    and you’re metaphors are exquisitely haunting.

  • 80 Proof February 29, 2008  

    Wow. I haven’t come across this phenomenon yet, but that sounds about right. It’s the same idea as restaurants that try to dupe you into buying bottled water by saying: “Sparkling or Regular water?” Then charge you 5 bucks for freaking water. (Sette, I’m looking at you). It’s the same idea as restaurants that have a fill line on their wine glasses to eek every penny out their customers (Sette, again, looking at you)

    Anyways, the only chips I am willing to pay for in a Mexican place are those that come with guacamole.

  • BS February 29, 2008  

    Trends travel fast – especially the lamest ones. If we don’t act now, I guarantee you D.C. will have pay-to-play chips and salsa by the end of the calendar year.

  • gansie February 29, 2008  

    although i disagree with Sette Osteria‘s ethics, i had a fantastic pizza there, topped with smoked mozz, eggplant, roasted red peppers and i forget what else, but it warrants giving Sette another try.

  • 80 Proof February 29, 2008  

    That’s why I say Tap water, in response to that question now…even in the nicest restaurants.

  • JoeHoya February 29, 2008  

    BS – Trends travel faster than you might like to believe. In fact, this one was imported to DC from none other than the queen of upscale Mexican in NYC – Rosa Mexicano.

    They offer “tortillas y salsas” for $5.

  • BS February 29, 2008  

    LOL – tortillas y salsa – I don’t care how fancy it sounds, it’s still not worth paying for.

  • JoeHoya February 29, 2008  

    And lest you think it’s only the hoity-toity Texy-Mexy places, it should be noted that local chain Taqueria Poblano has a note on their menu that refills of chips and salsa are $1.

    Good call on the “tap” response to the water question, 80. That’s my approach, too.

  • gansie February 29, 2008  

    I think we might need to pen an “Open Letter To Tex-Mex Restaurants Everywhere” and send it to: NYT, WaPo, LAT, POTUS, Congress, Anthony Bourdain, Padma Lakshmi, EMILY’s List, Jose Andres, James Beard Foundation, Raul Castro, Wolfgang Puck, Puck from Real World San Francisco…

  • BS February 29, 2008  

    LOL…I’ll talk to our press flack…maybe we can get draft a pledge for the prez candidates to sign. I’m almost positive Ron Paul would get on board.

  • Caroline February 29, 2008  

    Another restaurant practice I’ve noticed a sharp deline of is the complimentary bread basket at American and European type restaurants. Is this a consequence of the no-carb frenzy, or is it a DC thing? I moved here from South Jersey at the height of the Atkins craze, so I’m not sure which factor was at play. Also, I remember the Thai restaurants in NJ usually bringing out a basket of shrimp chips with peanut dipping sauce, something I’ve never seen a Thai restaurant do since I moved ot DC.

  • 80 Proof February 29, 2008  

    One more gripe while I’m on a roll.

    Places that don’t give free refills on coke. Come on now, the stuff costs, what, 5 cents to refill? I’m not going to down 5 glasses, I just want a second one to wash down by fries! Is that too much to ask??

  • gansie February 29, 2008  

    caroline – we could be soul mates! where in S-NJ are you from?

  • satchmo March 2, 2008  

    “Seriously, is this Brooklyn or Kansas?”
    Seriously, have you ever even been in Kansas, honey? The Mex restaurants there are better on average than the ones in NY, in my experience. A lot less white-bread, and they don’t charge for chips!

  • BS March 2, 2008  

    aaaaaaah my bad – I confess I made that statement without any experience or knowledge of the Kansas Mexican dining scene – sorry to be a cultural elitist and thanks for the heads up.

  • satchmo March 2, 2008  

    No prob. The remark struck me because I’ve had some excellent Mexican in Kansas. Not so much Tex-Mex (it’s always seemed to me that good Tex-Mex is extremely difficult to find outside Texas), but Mex proper. The immigration wave has made it increasingly common to find high-quality Mexican all round the Midwest and Plains states. And hey, *nobody* respectable charges for chips!

  • El March 3, 2008  

    I get particulary pissed with the coke-duping when the waiter asks if you would like a re-fill without telling you it will cost you.

    Regarding the Taqueria – while the menu says it’s $1 for refills, I’ve never been charged for it. And they have some excellent salsa!

  • Caroline March 3, 2008  

    gansie – I’m from Mt. Holly, about 20 minutes east of Cherry Hill. Though I did spend 4 years of my life at Rutgers New Brunswick.

  • JoeHoya March 3, 2008  

    Toms River here, for those who are keeping track of the Central/South Jersey expats.

  • gansie March 3, 2008  

    i dont know why, but i love the term *expats*

  • JoeHoya March 3, 2008  

    Finally – a term I use that ISN’T on everyone’s list of hated phrases (like ‘foodie,’ ‘gastropub,’ etc.)

  • Coonass foodie July 10, 2008  

    Paying for chips and salsa……… Im speechless at least this trend has not struck here in Atlanta (a mexican hotbed) even the some what upscale chain Papasitos still offers complimentary chips and salsa.

  • Taint4u2rub October 1, 2008  

    Pequena is my favorite place in the hood. I cut them slack on the lack of complimentary appetizers because of the overall value of their food (5$ huge awesome bean dip), and their option of entrees being ordered as smaller appetizer size portions that are still extremely filling. The margaritas are the best and a place that small probably can’t afford to give stuff away and still hope to turn a profit.

    btw, I will also attest to the high caliber mexican food that can be found in Kansas.

  • Jenny Lefebvre May 25, 2009  

    Although I now live outside of Philadelphia (which has some decent Mexican, but not lots), good Mexican inexpensive Mexican can pretty easily be found in Omaha, NE, and in and around Chicago. Does the east coast make it too expensive for a cheap but good Mexican place to make a profit? Or is it a lack of spicy eaters in all but the larger populations in the east?

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