Forget Taco Bell. Experience authentic “platos Mexicanos” on New Rochelle’s Mexican Mile
By Benjamin Chertoff
Photography by Stephen Ang
Perched in easy proximity to the largest metropolis in the world, Westchesterites are able to take world cuisine for granted. Manhattan has Chinatown, Queens has Indian diners in Jackson Heights, Brooklyn has little Odessa and the Bronx has more blood pudding than you can shake a potato at. At first glance, Westchester seems bereft of world influence, save for a couple of Greek diners and myriad pizza parlors. You still have to journey into the big city to find real ethnic food— until, that is, you take a stroll through downtown New Rochelle, fast becoming the tri-state area’s capital of Mexican cooking.
In the past 20 years, New Rochelle has been undergoing a quiet transformation. According to the 2000 census, more than 7,000 Hispanics have moved into New Rochelle since 1990, effectively doubling the Hispanic population. In the decade before that, the Mexican population nearly tripled. New Rochelle ranks second only to Yonkers as the largest Hispanic community in Westchester.
Mexican restaurants have been gradually replacing the old businesses on Main Street as they closed after the New Rochelle Mall closed its doors more than a decade ago. The result is that New Rochelle has become a virtual capital of Hispanic cuisine in Westchester.
First things first: We’re not talking about hard taco shells, grated yellow cheese and sour cream. What we as Northerners have come to associate as Mexican food, no thanks to Taco Bell, is really Southwestern food or, at best, Tex-Mex. (FYI: those giant, overstuffed burritos are from California.) This is something completely different. The atmosphere is much more like Tijuana—a sort of cultural estuary in which American visitors are absorbed by the strong Mexican currents. Often, I am the only native English speaker in these restaurants. Even Coca-Cola bottles bear the label “Hecho en Mexico,” and rare, Mexican imports like the delicious Apple Soda line the freezer cases. Live chickens ambling in off the street would not seem far out of place.
Of course, Mexican food is a little more complicated than that. Just as southern Creole cooking is no more representative of American cuisine than a New York bagel, Mexican cuisine too has its different regions, and vastly different cuisines. What you see in New Rochelle is mainly Puebla cuisine, from the south of Mexico just outside of Mexico City. Puebla is famous for the mole sauce, a complexly rich, sweet sauce made by simmering no fewer than 30 ingredients for hours, sometimes days. As you enter the cocinas of New Rochelle, please, leave your margaritas at the door.
Little Mexico, Mexican Mile or Nuevo Rochelle, as it’s variously called, begins just north of the split between Boston Post Road and Main Street. On the left is Mi Ranchito (601 Main Street; 914-633-8646). Like most of the Mexican restaurants on Main Street, Mi Ranchito is a typical Mexican taqueria (something of a cross between a deli and a casual restaurant—not unlike a French bistro). And, Mi Ranchito’s a good introduction, into the Mexican community. The restaurant is actually half Colombian, which accounts for the presence of such dishes as flaky empanadas (delicate, pastry-like pockets of spicy meat, a sort of civilized calzone) and the enormous (and fun to say) bandeja tipica. The bandeja is all of your basic meals on one plate: sausage links, rice and beans, a fried plantain, avocado and a fried egg.
On the Mexican side of the menu, Mi Ranchito offers typical Puebla fare, although a little more Americanized than some of its competitors: dinner plates of rice-stuffed burritos or tacos come with wonderful rice and beans, either refried or a basic frijoles negro (black beans), depending on your choice. The tacos, of course, are nothing like their Northern, hard-shelled cousins. Authentic Mexican tacos are simple, grilled pork, steak or chicken wrapped in a couple of fresh, steaming tortillas. The most common variety, carne asada, is skirt steak with cilantro and onions. With no cheese or sour cream to hide under, the meat and the tortilla burst with flavor, and it’s easy to imagine eating one on a corner in Mexico City or Guadalajara. And the
tacos at Mi Ranchito, as at most of
the restaurants mentioned here, are wonderful cultural emissaries.
The second restaurant on New Rochelle’s Mexico Row, the Little Mexican CafÃ© (581 Main Street; 914-636-3926), is a community center of sorts for the local Hispanic population. On a lazy weekday afternoon, two young men play pool in the back of the main room while another loads a selection into the jukebox. A few patrons gossip in Spanish at the counter before they’re drowned out by a booming merengue—it is clear from the first step through the door that the Little Mexican CafÃ© is as much a bar as it is a restaurant. A sign above an icebox overflowing with Pacifico, Tecate and Negro Modelo proclaims in Spanish that the kitchen closes at 12 a.m., while the bar is happy to serve until drowsy 2:30 a.m.
The menu is as busy as the clientele. Four pages run the gamut from basic flautas and enchiladas to whole meals like bistec encebollado (steak with onions). The tacos carne asada are moist and simple, with the requisite onions, cilantro and piping hot tortillas—all for an average of $2. For a larger meal on a budget, the chef cooks an inexpensive daily stew with rice and beans, and at $5.50, it is a cheap, yet authentic taste of rural Mexico. For a quick bite at the lunch counter or a meal in the back room, the Little Mexican CafÃ© has a menu variety to back up its variety of characters and raucous atmosphere. Try to get there early, though; while actually quite large with its extra dining area, the restaurant can feel very small late at night. After all the other restaurants have gone to sleep, it’s the only one awake to brave the night.
Of all the Mexican joints in New Rochelle, the Mexican Corner Restaurant (497 Main Street; 914-633-9696) is probably the one you’ve heard about—its bright, windowed storefront on the busy corner across from the old REI makes it inviting for the uninitiated. But just because the waitress understands some of your gringo English doesn’t mean the food is any less authentic—it just makes it a little pricier. Here the larger entrÃ©es, like a hearty bistec Mexicano (an excellent skirt steak with jalapeÃ±o spices) come with refried beans of the sort you’d expect at an upscale Tex-Mex restaurant, along with a fresh tomato salsa that comes standard with every meal. But creature comforts aside, the Mexican Corner Restaurant serves an excellent lunch menu with flautas, chimichangas and tacos. The Corner Special, four enchiladas, comes covered in a rich mole sauce, just sweet enough to hint at the chocolate undertones. And if you catch them on the right day, the Mexican Corner Restaurant makes tamales, a rare treat outside of Mexico.
This is not to say that all the Mexican restaurants are on the main drag. Hidden like Aztec ruins in a crowded rainforest, Taqueria El Chino (72 Centre Avenue; 914-636-9615) is a little hard to find at first—but the search is worth it. With its narrow storefront and small booths, this tiny taqueria might serve the best Mexican food in New Rochelle. Diners are first greeted with a large bowl of warm chips and infernally hot salsa. The menu is simple, offering simple Mexican cuisine. The tacos carne asada come overfilled with meat that the thick, steamy tortillas strain to hold together (the restaurant offers five varieties). El Chino’s version of a quesadilla, gringas, comes stuffed with chicken or meat, with cheese delicately melted over the top. At $4.50, the gringas might be the best lunch deal on either side of the border.
Right in the middle of New Rochelle’s Mexican Mile, Tostadas Hernandez (528 Main Street; 914-576-0964) is just that: an authentic general store stocking all those specific Mexican cultural imports that, for the most part, never get north of the border. The store is half deli and half gourmet supermarket, stocking bins of dried chili peppers, rows of Mexican cheeses, and large racks of salsa—both in jars and on compact discs. In fact, Tostadas looks so much like a small market that it’s easy to miss the tiny restaurant hidden in the back.
A few seats make up a tiny taqueria with no printed menus, no waitstaff, and none of the trimmings you’d expect at an eatery. A simple dry-erase board lists their specialties: tacos, in every variety; ceviche, pork and birria tacos are among the choices, but Tostadas’s taco menu is set apart by the inclusion of tacos lengua. In English: tongue tacos. Yes, tongue, a tortilla-wrapped delicacy all over rural Mexico. If you suppress your curiosity, and refrain from peeking inside your taco, lengua is remarkably close to regular meat—just a little, how to say, spongier. And at $1.50 to $2 a taco, Tostadas, like most of its neighboring taquerias, is very inexpensive. You just might be getting more than you bargained for.
Benjamin Chertoff is a Pelham-based freelance writer who has written extensively for many publications, including Time Out New York and Men’s Journal.