The Six Leaders of The New Wave of Mexican Restaurants
Perhaps it has to do with the growing Hispanic population of the United States. Perhaps it's because the world has finally realized the value of a good taco. Whatever it is, the options for enjoying Mexican food are rapidly increasing in variety and quality. Helmed by top-flight chefs from both south and north of the border, the current generation Mexican restaurants is redefining the popular understanding of the cuisine for the better.
EMPELLÓN — New York
The Chef: Alex Stupak, the former pastry genius at Manhattan's WD-50 and Chicago's Alinea
The Vibe: Dark wood floors, dramatic iron chandeliers, and stark, white-painted bricks conjure a West Village bistro, while the graffiti-esque mural behind the bar and blasting (non-Latino) music suggest an edgier undertone.
The Food: High-concept cooking channeled into thrilling, uncomplicated fare like beer-braised-tongue tacos, roasted-cauliflower salad with almond-chorizo vinaigrette, and a mezcal-spiked passion-fruit tart.
230 West 4th Street, New York City, 212-367-0999, www.empellon.com
The Chef: Paul Kahan, the foie-gras-torchon-making, lamb-saddle-roasting super-chef behind the Windy City mainstays Blackbird and Avec.
The Vibe: A raucous taqueria in Wicker Park, where an industrial garage door leads to a terrace packed with a crowd that's varied enough to include small-batch-bourbon sippers and $1 Schlitz lovers.
The Food: The vast beer and whiskey lists provide more reason to linger over braised, crisped pork belly and wood-grilled chicken thighs, which are both tucked into house-made tortillas and lashed with salsa.
1531 North Damen Avenue, Chicago, 773-235-4039, www.bigstarchicago.com
RED O—Los Angeles
The Chef: Mexican-cuisine demigod Rick Bayless consults while Armando Martinez, formerly of the Manhattan Beach eatery Twelve + Highland, cooks.
The Vibe: Sexy and grand in the Hollywood way — a towering retractable ceiling, gauzy curtains, wicker chairs, and celebs galore.
The Food: Tamales stuffed with sweet corn, goat cheese, and poblano peppers, and achiote-marinated suckling pig slow-cooked in banana leaves — vintage Bayless.
8155 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, 323-655-5009, www.redorestaurant.com
The Chef: Rene Ortiz, formerly of the luxe New York Latin speakeasy La Esquina, as well as stints with such heavyweights as Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse developed the menu.
The Vibe: In a pedestrian-friendly stretch of downtown, crowds congregate at the mezzanine bar, outdoor tables, and under the dining room's giant, weblike chandelier of Edison bulbs.
The Food: When fine dining collides with the flavors of Mexican market food, you get duck confit with Oaxacan black mole and rib-eye tacos with crispy Manchego and grilled-jalapeño-tomato salsa — along with a tequila selection that impresses even connoisseurs.
400 West 2nd Street, Austin, 512-499-0300, www.lacondesaaustin.com
AZUL CONDESA—Mexico City
The Chef: Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, adored for his food at Café Azul y Oro (also in Mexico City) and revered for his Diccionario Enciclopedico de gastronomía Mexicana, the definitive book of Mexican gastronomy.
The Vibe: Serene and earthy (woven rattan chairs, fresh flowers on every table, a large, leafy courtyard) in the heart of the chic Colonia Condesa neighborhood.
The Food: Meticulously re-created traditional dishes like enchiladas filled with hibiscus flowers, pork in a throwback white-almond sauce, and duck fritters drizzled with Oaxaca's legendary 25-plus-ingredient mole.
68 Nuevo León, Mexico City, 55-5286-6380
¿POR QUÉ NO?—Portland
The Chef: Bryan Steelman, the self-trained restaurateur who oversees the menu, was inspired to open his own eatery after enjoying a transcendent barbacoa taco in Morelia, Mexico.
The Vibe: Colorful, crafty, and über-eco, with a knick-knack-scattered interior and plenty of bike parking (it's Oregon, after all).
The Food: Carnitas made from local pork and ceviche made from sustainable and wild seafood, washed down with seasonal aguas frescas (fruit drinks) in flavors like raspberry-mint and yellow watermelon.
4635 South East Hawthorne Boulevard. Portland, 503-954-3138, www.porquenotacos.com
—By JJ Goode
Also on Details.com:
The World's Best Three Restaurants That Take Seafood To The Next Level
For Cinco De Mayo, The Best way to Drink Tequila Without A Hangover
The Best: Our Three Favorite Mezcalerias North Of The Border
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