On a perfect summer day, the Sideways team sat down for lunch at Tacombi, a relatively new and thriving addition to Manhattan’s Mexican food scene. Sitting at one of the higher tables near the front of the restaurant, with a breeze blowing in from 24th street, one can’t help but notice that the restaurant practically gleams (at the time of writing, it is just about seven weeks old). Even the painted sign advertising “Frutos Naturales” above the juice bar looks as if it was finished that morning. We sampled a variety of tacos and other Mexican staples (including their remarkably flavorful rice and beans), as well as some of their fresh-squeezed juices. Although all of it was delicious and satisfying, we were particularly taken with a few of the dishes we tried. Their El Pastor tacos, prepared with pork roasted and marinated with pineapple for two days before serving, were tender and savory. For our vegetarian readers, the Quesadilla Maiz Azul, prepared with dried chili sauce, Chihuahua cheese, and corn on a blue tortilla, and the Black Ben Y Sweet Potatoes taco, are must-haves. And, for the scorching summer days to come, their pineapple juice with ginger and mint takes refreshment to another level. Our food came with sides of salsa verde, salsa roja, escabeche (a mix of pickled vegetables), and radish and mint, as well as an optional extra-hot habanero sauce for the adventurous — all fresh and prepared in-house. Fresh, in-house, and local is the name of the game for Tacombi’s executive chef Jason DeBriere. Everything from the tortillas — which, if you come at the right time of day, you can watch them make in their tortilleria — to the guacamole, to the meat used in their tacos, is prepared fresh every day. DeBriere even goes personally to markets around New York City to select the vegetables for the escabeche. Alan, a chef at Tacombi with whom we had the privilege of speaking, described DeBriere as a mago de comer, which roughly translates to “food wizard. ” “He never cuts corners, ” he added. He also emphasized the dedication of every chef in the kitchen to making everything fresh every day, as well as making locally sourced ingredients a major priority. “We’re just trying to produce traditional Mexican food, ” Alan told us. “We’re not trying to do a fusion with American food. ” This philosophy extends to their breakfast menu, which is full of traditional Mexican breakfast dishes like their huevos rancheros and fresh-baked breakfast pastries, like their fruit-filled empanadas. With its open, relaxing atmosphere and exceptional Mexican cuisine, Tacombi is a great place to stop by for any meal. “We want to create a space that does more than welcomes you, ” Alan said. “It transports you. ”
A marriage of Mexican and barbecue, the bursting flavors of Mexicue set it apart from other mobile eats during its beginnings as a food truck in 2010. In 2011, the energy and vivacity of the original endeavor were carried over to a brick and mortar location on Seventh Avenue, and in 2014 Times Square became its third location, with continued plans for expansion. Great smells awaited me when I first stopped in one summer afternoon to find out what the buzz was about. Apart from the inviting wooden slab booths, the innovative menu, and the dynamic bar (which hosts weekday happy hours from 4pm to 6pm) what made me return for dinner that night was the charisma of the staff. From hostess to waiter, all members were devoted to ensuring a comfortable experience for their guests with bubbly smiles and relaxed attentiveness. Among other hits, the burnt ends brisket bowl has garnered quite a following with a base of award-winning chili, tortilla chips for crunch, and house-pickled jalapeños for a little kick. The empty bowl, after Manhattan Sideways members were done with it, assured me it was something special. What provoked my own interest, however, was the kale and quinoa bowl, an interesting listing on the menu that made sense at first bite, a perfect flavor combination of spicy Mexican and smoky barbecue.
Toloache, a bustling Mexican bistro on 50th street, shares its name with the legendary Toloache flower. According to a myth in Mexican culture, the flower can be brewed into a love potion - if someone tastes the drink once, he or she will always return for another sip. The restaurant’s food and drinks have the same effect: Many people who eat there once return time and time again. General Manager Jorge shared a story about his friend from Japan who visited Toloache on the first night of a weeklong vacation in Manhattan. He ended up returning every day that week and then again every year during his annual visit to the city. Toloache on 50th is the first of many restaurants opened in New York by chef-owner Julian Medina. Chef Julian grew up in Mexico City, where he was inspired by the home cooking of his father and grandfather. He was originally brought to New York by Chef Richard Sandoval, who appointed him as Chef de Cuisine at Sandoval’s Maya. He went on to gain experience at distinguished restaurants and graduated from the French Culinary Institute with recognition. Today, Chef Julian owns seven of his own restaurants in the city and has been featured in several publications, including Men’s Journal, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. He has appeared on shows such as "Iron Chef" and "Beat Bobby Flay. " His impressive background is reflected in the success and distinctive menu of his “first child, ” Toloache. Julian designed Toloache’s extraordinary menu to have something for everyone – the wide range of dishes include both vegetarian and gluten free options. He prides himself on using only the freshest of ingredients, whether it is white truffles or chapulines (dried grasshoppers imported from Oaxaca). These crunchy critters have gained quite a bit of media attention, including a feature on "The Today Show. " The kitchen brought out the Tacos Chapulines for the Manhattan Sideways team to photograph, and we had to admit that the insects were made to look very appetizing. We were also presented with the diverse Trio de Guacamoles, which allowed us to sample three varieties of the dip: the familiar traditional guacamole; the Frutas Guacamole, which incorporates fruit instead of typical ingredients (pomegranate, mango, and apple instead of tomato and Thai Basil instead of cilantro); and the Rojo guacamole, made with chipotle. Several of us went on to sample the Quesadilla de Huitlacoche y Trufas (made with fresh truffles), The Baja Tilapia Pescado, and the braised short rib, served with quinoa and carrots. Each dish exemplified Chef Julian’s inventiveness and ability to put small, flavor-enhancing twists on typical Mexican cuisine. The drinks were equally impressive, including Julian’s favorite “Chef’s Selection Margarita, ” made with his hand-picked bottle of Herradura Tequila. The bartender mixed a few cocktails for us to photograph and taste, including the refreshing “De la Calle, ” made with cucumber and jalapeno; the spicy “Mezcalita de Pina”; and the signature “Toloache, ” made with hibiscus and blueberries. The food is amazing and the drinks are fantastic, but what really keeps so many guests coming back is Toloache’s dedication to quality service. As Jorge informed us, “Our goal is to make every guest feel at home. They are our friends. ” Each of the servers have their own style, creating unique, yet equally enjoyable dining experiences. Guests are able to experience Toloache in a completely new light from one day to the next just by sitting at a different server’s table. It was event manager Temple who summed the restaurant up perfectly: "Toloache feels like a family – like you’re walking into Little Mexico. ”
Although this is not its original location, the 18th Street restaurant remains loyal to its traditional Mexican cuisine roots. Known for its signature guacamole and frozen pomegranate margaritas, the restaurant consistently offers excellent, authentic food. Rosa Mexicano roughly translates to “Mexican pink, ” which is meant to embody the colors of the country's sunset. A beautiful waterfall divides the cavernous room into two sections to provide a pleasant barrier between dining patrons and those enjoying drinks before their meal. This elaborate piece of art in the middle of the restaurant, which was created by a designer from Dubai, adds to the overall experience of entering a world outside of New York City. The back room, referred to as the sky room, is illuminated by natural light that enters through the ceiling. The first location was established in 1984 on 1st Street, where Rosa herself could be found cooking behind the bar, sharing her infectious personality with everyone around her. To this day, Rosa Mexicano is proud to employ a majority of Mexicans on its staff and to present the beauty of Mexico through its cuisine.
Since its opening in the summer of 2011, Empellon has been welcomed by just about every food critic in the New York area - and all to rave reviews. We finally had to try this for ourselves... and we were not disappointed. The team of highly regarded young chefs and the renowned head chef/owner produce a truly outstanding Mexican-inspired menu and pay homage to the taco and tortilla. The mezcal margarita with a tincture of seranno pepper was a great way to start the meal. Then we moved on to guacamole, several different tasty salsas, and a refreshing watercress salad with apples, pineapples and a mole dressing. Next up were shishito peppers and melted cheese served on warm tortillas, a healthy chicken taco, yucca fries and sweet plantains. Empellon definitely lived up to our expectations.
Javelina opened in the middle of a snowstorm in 2015, and was suddenly inundated with over eighty customers. They are the ultimate restaurant success story, and Matt Post, the owner, says it is all thanks to the Texas network. While speaking to me at the bar of his seemingly always-full new space, he let me know that when Texans would get together before Javelina opened (“we always find each other, ” he said), the conversation would steer towards how there was no good Tex Mex food in the city. Despite the fact that there were many places in the 1980s, there has been a noticeable dearth in recent decades. Matt suspects the reason is that people overdosed on cheap, badly-done Tex-Mex. “Any place with a frozen margarita machine called themselves Tex-Mex, ” he explained. There was, however, one Mexican restaurant that Matt liked, called Los Dos Molinos in Gramercy, nearby his apartment. When that eatery closed in 2009, Tommy Lasagna took its place and Matt momentarily forgot about it. It was fate, therefore, when Matt started looking for a decently priced space in which to open his very first restaurant, and discovered that Los Dos Molinos’ old home was for rent. He embraced the good karma and opened Javelina. A lot of research and preparation went into Javelina. Matt found an excellent chef in Rich Caruso, who had fallen in love with Tex-Mex on a barbecue research trip to Austin. He grew up in South Brooklyn, however, and so he did not know what “queso” was. Matt informed me that queso is central to Tex-Mex, and the first thing a Texan would ask him when they heard of his plans for Javelina was “Will there be queso? ” Rich therefore spent five days tasting forty different kinds of queso before developing four varieties for Javelina. We tried his “Bob Armstrong” queso, made with guacamole, pico de gallo, ground beef, and sour cream. The north easterners who make up a part of the Manhattan Sideways team were delighted by the perfect balance of creamy cheese and zingy spices – we became immediate converts. The décor was also carefully thought out, as Matt brought in a designer from Austin in order to ensure that the ambience would be authentic, without too many of the kitschy southwestern aspects that Tex-Mex restaurants often have. There are, however, many fun quirks that Matt specifically requested. For example, he told me he that he had to fight to get the taxidermy hog behind the bar, and that he was responsible for the “True Tex-Mex” sign. The restaurant also had the clever idea to put pictures of Texans on the bathroom doors. When we visited, we saw the faces of Beyonce and Matthew McConaughey. “We spent so much time on the restaurant design, but people end up instagramming the bathrooms, ” Matt chuckled. Taking a seat at the bar, we met the bartender, Adam, who made us “the most contrasting colors on the menu: ” The extremely refreshing avocado and prickly pear margarita became an instant hit with us, and, as Matt proclaimed, with his regular customers as well. Matt brought out some San Antonio-style puffy tacos, which were deliciously crispy and piled high with guacamole. With a broad smile, he declared, “I have all regions of Texas represented, ” and pointed out the different dishes for each geographic area. When I asked Matt how his experience opening his first restaurant has been, he looked happily exhausted. “It’s been surreal so far. ” He has been thankful for word of mouth and the positive press: He has already heard stories of Californians bonding over visiting his restaurant while in New York and a friend backpacking in South America who met a fan of Javelina on the trail. Though he explained that Murphy’s Law is the governing rule of the restaurant business, he said, “It’s been really fun. ” He is pleased to have provided New Yorkers (and especially transplanted Texans) with a kind of cuisine that has been missing from the streets of Manhattan. As we were leaving, Matt said, “People keep thanking us for opening, which is bizarre…and wonderful. ”
“Restaurants are a funny thing — I think most of us fall in and then some of us never leave, ” said Laura Bird, who spent decades working in and out of her uncle’s Southwestern eatery, Santa Fe, before taking over as the owner. Laura’s uncle, John Bird, initially set out to be a musician. However, “like most creatives in New York, he spent a lot of time working in restaurants in between gigs. ” He was a busboy at the casual Mexican joint, Cantina, on 70th Street for many years. Putting his dreams of stardom aside, John and a crew of coworkers he had befriended at Cantina chose to open a new place mere blocks away that would “elevate Southwestern cuisine. ” John later became the sole proprietor, and under his management, the business was able to straddle the line between attracting hotshot celebrities and serving as a warm, family restaurant. “So many people began bringing their kids to dinner and started a long-lasting tradition of dining at Santa Fe together, ” Laura shared. She fondly recalls her own early visits to her uncle’s restaurant. “It seemed like a game then. I remember the excitement of being allowed to use the soda gun for the first time. ” Little did she know that she would be a fixture at Santa Fe. Similar to her uncle before her, Laura graduated college with a theater major and the knowledge that she would need a side job to pay her rent. She went from working the coat check, to waitressing, to suddenly managing the entire restaurant. Though it may not be for everyone, Laura admitted that she loved the “vampire lifestyle — I could do what I loved during the day and then come here at night to do a different kind of show business. ”The family ties at Santa Fe do not stop at Laura and John. The chef of over a decade, José Gonzalez, appointed his son, Danny, as his second-in-command. Together, they dish up traditional Mexican foods as well as American staples and do their best to abide by John’s cardinal rule: consistency. “It’s easy to make something once, but the real goal is to keep cooking it the same way every time. We try to ensure that when people order a dish, it is the same flavor that they fell in love with when they first tried it a week or even ten years ago. ” Just as notable are Santa Fe’s margaritas, which have “a reputation of their own as our shining superstar. ”As for John, after devoting decades of his life to Santa Fe, he “took a bow from his restaurant journey” during the COVID-19 pandemic and entrusted Laura and her husband, Alex Fresqued, to keep running the show. In a heartwarming twist of fate, Santa Fe’s landlord turned out to be equally as fond of this neighborhood gem as its patrons, and he came on as a partner to help keep it alive.