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 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*