Mark Merker became enamored with burritos after trying them for the first time while he was attending school in San Francisco. Unable to find burritos in New York quite like the ones he had eaten in California, he started Harry’s and Benny’s Burritos. After owning Mexican restaurants for years, Mark decided to try his hand at Latin street food, specifically the South American staple, empanadas.
Something was missing, however, from the traditional recipes that he had found. “The beef was just beef,” he told me. “It was very basic. None of it added volume to the flavor.” Now, at Benny's Burritos & Empanadas, which opened in the spring of 2017, Mark sells the “chechenita,” a variation of the empanada, which he describes as an “empanada pouch.”
Mark explained that the influences for the Chechenita come from a variety of cultures. “It isn’t just one culture that goes into it,” he said. “It is very American in that sense.” We could not help but burst out into laughter, too. As we sat at the counter facing the windows, open to the passersby on the street, Amelia tried the Cheesesteak Chechenita. She said that it was rich and warm, with just the right amount of dough: "The perfect afternoon snack."
Three decades ago, Mark opened a Mexican restaurant just across the street. When he began contemplating Benny's Burritos & Empanadas, it seemed only natural to return to the East Village."There was just something about the neighborhood that kept the sense of community alive. It’s like I’m coming back home.”
There is no over-the-top, Tex-Mex red and green here. Instead, string lighting and wire deck chairs give the entire restaurant a patio feel, and the nods to Mexico are subtle and tasteful: tables set with blue-rimmed glasses like the ones I have seen on trips to the country, and a bar at the back with row upon row of tequila and mezcal. Rosie’s is the latest from restaurateurs Marc Meyer and Vicki Freeman, known for their other ventures like Cookshop and Vic’s. When I stopped by in July of 2015, Rosie’s had been open just over three months, though Anna Marie, the General Manager, said “strangely, we feel like we’ve been here longer. It’s a comfortable feeling. ” I asked her to tell me about her experience with the new restaurant so far, and she told me how lucky she felt to be in the area. “I love the neighborhood, ” she explained, “one of our goals coming here was to become part of the community. ”“We’ve really tried to bring Mexico to New York, ” Anna Marie continued. Owner Marc Meyer had been travelling to Mexico for years, and so opening Rosie’s was a dream come true for the chef. “He just has such a respect for the cuisine, ” Anna Marie added. Of course, in order to bring authentic Mexican to Manhattan, a great deal of research was required. “We all went to Veracruz last August to do more research on the seafood side, ” Anna Marie recalled. The research certainly paid off. Members of the Sideways Team were blown away by the Cangrejo al Ajillo, a pan roasted blue crab served with guajillo chile, garlic, lime, and olive oil. Besides such astonishingly fresh seafood, another tradition that Rosie’s brings straight from Mexico is the Comal – the centerpiece of the dining area is a circular, tiled bar where women prepare tortillas by hand. “Our Comal Bar is a tribute to the ladies on the streets in Mexico, ” Anna Marie told me. There, the women grind their own corn to make the masa needed for corn tortillas. At Rosie’s, the corn is imported directly from Mexico, and ground downstairs, so that the first thing customers smell when they enter the restaurant is the fresh cornmeal. The women who make the masa into tortillas wear traditional comal aprons sewn from fabric that Marc Meyer and his team brought back from one of their trips. It is just one more touch of authenticity to accompany the restaurant’s delicious food. While the menu at Rosie’s does not focus on a particular region of Mexico, it acts as a travelogue of sorts, a collection of recipes inspired by Marc’s journeys there, and the culinary experiences that the country holds. The enchiladas are served in traditional style, with an aromatic mole sauce, and of course, everything comes with freshly-made tortillas. “The chefs – you get an air of such pride from them, ” Anna Marie exclaimed. “They feel celebrated, and that makes me happy. ”
With tasty tacos and a self-service sauce bar offering a selection ranging from mildly spicy to full-on mouth burn, there is something for every taste at Empellón. The specialty slow roasted pork tacos are as delicious as the enormous skewer grill is enticing, and the space of the restaurant is full of interesting details. Make sure to look up, as the ceilings of this place are impressive. Covered in graffiti-like paintings, the intricate decorations add a special touch to the atmosphere. Another fun feature is the chalk left out in the bathroom, urging guests to leave their mark on the blackboard painted walls. In 2016, Alex had the brilliant idea to separate the bar and the taqueria with a wall so that light from the taqueria does not spill into the low-lit bar area. The two sections, which have different hours, also have new menu items, including nachos and wings. Some of the tacos have also been beefed up, sometimes literally, including short rib and cheeseburger tacos. There is no doubt that with a happening bar scene and tacos served on small paper plates, owner Alex Stupak has another Manhattan hit to add to his other endeavors.
After making frequent trips to Mexico and being unable to stay there as she wished, Dina Leor decided to do the next best thing: She brought Mexico to New York. Her success is evident upon walking into the store: Everything is covered in paper flowers and bright colors, enough to lift the spirits of any New Yorker wandering in on a gray day. A Lilliputian party of skeletal characters dance on a shelf for Día de los Muertos and little metal charms called “Milagros” or “miracles” cover many of the pieces. Dina carries everything from simple keychains and children’s toys to elaborate folk art, but each piece has a special meaning, often explained by little handwritten cards on the shelves. Dina is an artist herself: she used to make colorful boxes. When she opened La Sirena in 1999, she was essentially creating a bigger box: A box housing art and culture. She calls it her “evolving assemblage, ” a “living altar. ”La Sirena attracts all sorts of people. While I was visiting, there was a Swiss family browsing, straight from the airport. Since Dina’s was the first store they had found, they gave her a little box of Swiss chocolates. Many of Dina’s customers, however, are regulars, and Mexicans themselves. While spending time with Dina, she told me how a Mexican man had walked in and started weeping, because the store reminded him of his grandmother and he had not been able to go home to visit her. The store is “an umbrella of the republic, ” Dina says, and many regions of Mexico are represented. Dina went on to tell me another story, while explaining that she carries items from $2 to $500. One day she had a Mexican mother come in and gush over the merchandise. The woman wanted to get something for her four children, but only had a twenty-dollar bill. Dina helped her find four hand-made items and felt very proud when the cash register read “$19. 60. ” Some of the pricier pieces in the store come from the expatriate New Yorker Sue Kreitzman, a cookbook writer-turned-artist, whose work is celebrated in England, where she now resides. She uses echoes of Mexican folk art in her work. La Sirena provides her with many materials and is proud to feature her art. The history and familial meaning behind all the art is fascinating: Dina explained to me that in Mexico, life and art are not clearly separated. Artistic items are often family efforts, and children will frequently come home from school in the afternoon and help paint or sculpt or craft. The art is “handmade by beautiful people: ” when she travels around Mexico, people welcome her into their home and give her tortillas to represent reciprocal warmth. One of the most beautiful sights that she has seen on her travels was a woman breast-feeding while making clay pieces at the home of Josefina Aguilar, now well-known in the folk art community. “It’s part of the circle of life, ” Dina says: making art among nature, raising children, and teaching them the same artistic passions. Dina herself is part of this circle of life: As the adopted daughter of Mexico, she is continuing its artistic traditions and teaching them, in turn, to New Yorkers.
"The Two Faces of Italian Food" is the tagline at this restaurant and wine bar. The perfect blend they are referring to is tradition and innovation. The menu boasts homemade and traditional options - the wine list is not limited to Italian varieties, though the beer is. We stopped in briefly and relaxed with a glass of wine in their quiet back garden and spoke with one of the restaurant's partners as waiters set up for that evening's meal. When we asked him to describe the food that Giano served in a short sentence he told us humbly: "Italian food. No big deal. " Can't wait to try it!
Most business owners know how difficult it is to bounce back after being robbed. Makoto Wantanabe has done it twice and, ironically, has a thief to thank for the very birth of Tokio 7. Makoto was globetrotting in the early 1990s when he arrived in Southern California on what was supposed to be the penultimate stop on his tour. He befriended a homeless man and let him stay in his hotel room for the night, but Makoto awoke to find everything except for his passport was stolen. Stranded with no money and far from his home in the Japanese countryside, Makoto called one of his only contacts in the U. S., who worked at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan. He scrounged up enough money for a bus ticket and was off. While in New York, Makoto felt that men’s clothing suffered from a lack of style. Having always had a knack for fashion, he knew he could change that but lacked the funds to open a store with brand new clothing. So, after several years of saving his wages as a waiter, he founded one of the first consignment shops in New York City. Tokio 7 now carries men’s and women’s clothes, with the overarching theme being, as Makoto says, that they are simply “cool. ” The clothes are mostly from Japanese designers and name brands with unique twists. In the store, clothing that has been donated with a lot of wear is labeled “well loved. ”Despite its importance in the community, the shop fell on tough times during the COVID-19 pandemic. To make matters worse, Tokio 7 was looted in the summer of 2020 and had 300 items stolen. When Makoto contemplated closing his doors permanently, longtime customers begged him to reconsider. Resilient as ever, he set up a small photography area in the back of the shop and sold a portion of his clothes online to compensate for the decline of in-person purchases. Reflecting on his journey, Makoto marveled at the whims of fate. Had he not been robbed all of those decades ago in California, he had planned to start a life in the Amazon rainforest
This small, old-world neighborhood barbershop is loaded with personality. Everything about Barbiere is unique: the whimsical wrought-iron gate out front, the retro hair and shaving products along the walls, and the high-quality, old-fashioned service. When we poked our heads in to chat with the barbers and their clients—all seated in vintage leather chairs—they were proud to tell us that James Franco is among the celebrities that drop by for a haircut or a classic shave.