Since moving to New York City, Sean and I have gotten try some of the best food I have ever had in my life, from the exotic (Sri Lankan, anyone?) to the more familiar (a.k.a. the best pizza and hot dogs). But we had not yet had any of that familiar “exotic” breed of cuisine known as Mexican. While I can prepare a number of Mexican dishes at home, if you’ve ever had truly great Mexican food at a restaurant, you know that I–as a “white, non-Hispanic” individual–could never come close to the real thing.
So after a few weeks of sampling other Latin cuisines, from Peruvian to Cuban, I began to sympathize with the Homesick Texan. There is truly nothing like tried-and-true Tex-Mex favorites. After a little Yelp-ing, I discovered a place called Cafe Ollin with dirt-cheap prices, rave reviews, and an attractive location in Spanish Harlem (so surely it would be more authentic than throwing some guacamole on top of some chips and proclaiming it to be “Mexican,” right?). A quick bus ride up to Harlem on Friday evening and we arrived at what can truly be called a hole-in-the-wall establishment:
We walked into a tiny room tackily decorated with Mexican bric-a-brac. None of the tables matched one another, and most were just fold-out card tables with scuffed and sticky surfaces. Our young waitress did not understand much English. All of the food items on the menu were listed in Spanish first, English second. This place was promising.
I had noted from my online research beforehand that this would not be my standard Tex-Mex or Cali Mex fare. All of the food served in this little joint is of the Puebla style, Puebla being a region of Mexico a couple of hours southeast of Mexico City. We both ordered the same thing like the boring married couple that we are: carnitas cemitas. I’ve never had a cemita before, but it is basically a HUGE Mexican sandwich that originated from Puebla. Lots of Yelp-ers were raving about it, so I decided to venture into the unfamiliar.
Our sandwiches, which each occupied an entire plate, consisted of carnitas (pork), lettuce, tomato, red onion, cilantro, avacado, oaxaca cheese, and chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Of course, that last ingredient brought back memories of my first experience with adobo sauce when I made Tex-Mex Mashed Sweet Potatoes. All of this was piled on a toasted sesame bun of gargantuan portions. It looks a little like this (my leftovers I ate on Saturday), times two:
I thoroughly enjoyed that sandwich, and it took self-control to save half for Saturday’s lunch. It was a wonderful mix of spiciness and freshness from the cilantro and avacado. The crunch from the toasted bun and the onions was nice, too. I was happy, until I felt horribly ill on Saturday afternoon, and was not even able to enjoy my Downton Abbey, Season 2 marathon properly. I thought I had a fever. I could not drink enough water. I felt absurdly tired. I cannot blame my simple Saturday breakfast of OJ and Special K.
I blame the adobo sauce.
(Oh, and I’m fine now, thanks for asking.)
To recuperate from this too-exotic food encounter (Sean suffered from adobo-induced pains himself), we resorted to the comfort food to end all comfort foods: macaroni and cheese from the well-known East Village establishment ‘Smac. Yes, a restaurant entirely devoted to mac & cheese, with appropriately orange- and yellow-hued decor. Don’t judge.
Maybe this puts me on par with those folks who will pay a whole heckuva lot for a classic PB&J from Peanut Butter & Co, but it was so so worth it. I had been wanting to visit the Houston restaurant Jus’ Mac before moving up to Yankee Land, but we never did. Our ‘Smac visit more than made up for it.
We ordered two of the smallest size skillet you can get, “Nosh,”–and yes, you do get served your bubbly hot pan of mac & cheese in a skillet. We got one order of the buffalo chicken mac, after a recommendation from one of my new coworkers, and an order of the “Alpine,” a heavenly mixture of gruyere cheese and thick-cut bacon.
I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it more than made up for our unfortunate encounter with Puebla cuisine. Please, please go there if you live in NYC. It won’t break the bank, and it will fill your stomach with cheesy happiness.
I’m sorry to share all these lovely pictures of delicious food with you without being able to offer you a sample myself. Reading about food is the worst. One day at work last week, I copy edited pages and pages of tables about the best-selling candies and snacks. It was torture. Now I endure the self-induced torture of reading mouth-watering descriptions of foreign cuisines in my current read, Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and People Who Cook. (Pssst…by reading this book, I learned that Bourdain totally lives in the UES. All the more reason to NOT zone out when walking around the neighborhood, right?).
Anyhow, if you know of any worthwhile Mexican restaurants in NYC, please comment and let me know! It might be a frustrating adventure, but I’m determined to complete our quest. We will not be dismayed. I mean, there are plenty of Mexican people in this city–where do they eat?!? Can someone please invite me over to eat a home-cooked meal from their abuela’s kitchen? Pleeeease?