Many a New York foodie longs for the taste of "real" Mexican food, of the type to be had in the bodegas of Jackson Heights or the taquerias of Sunset Park. But what of those of us who like in cheesy, inauthentic, lame version? Are we bound to go to suburban strip malls to sate our appetite for enchiladas? No.
The nice thing about Cafe Frida, that Upper West Side standby, is that it serves two totally different kinds of diner: the Manhattanite who just wants some fajitas on a sizzle platter, accompanied by a cold margarita; as well as the gastronome who knows all about the rural and regional cooking of Mexico. The neighborhood is longer on the former than the latter, which is why their double-barrel approach is such a credit to them.
Dos Caminos is a truly authentic experience, if you are looking to find a perfect example of an urban (or suburban) good times margarita restaurant. Every one of the standard elements are present: the oversize cocktails, the nachos, the elaborately named meat-and-cheese dishes, the unthreatenin use of chiles, the elaborate desserts. It's all done about as well as it can be, and if you want to pick up an administrative assistant, well, this is the place.
Let's say you're in the East Village and have a yen for tacos, but you aren't actually interested in going to that ultra-real Mexican bodega, and eating them over a garbage can. Nor are you looking for something as upscale as Yerba Buena or Empellon. Mercadito is the place for you! It's not scary enough to spook the brunch crowd, but not so g-rated as to keep away the local residents. Funky but neat, with solid b+ food and low-ish prices, it's a middle course for Mexican in the neighborhood.
If you're a serious student of Mexican food, or even if you are from California, you would be advised to turn back at the threshold, but if you're a youngish New Yorker looking for a causal date place, somewhere to have a few margaritas and some small, unmessy tacos, and maybe a shot of tequila afterwards, it will server you well. And what more can you really ask from a Manhattan Mexican restaurant?
Julian Medina's wildly successful high-Mexican concept delivers refined restaurant food that draws strongly on the flavors of rural Mexico, minus the rough edges. This is very good Mexican food, but only for people that are not really that into it -- which is to say Midtown diners. That said, the man did put grasshopper tacos on the menu, so he deserves some street cred!
Basically, Gabriella's is Dos Caminos for families. It's part of the same restaurant group, Alicart, and the menu is nearly indistinguishable from its downtown twin. Which is to say that it's Americanized Mexican, but well-executed, tasty, and delivered with the snappy service one would expect of a corporate restaurant chain. Which is not a bad thing.
This casual spinoff from Alex Stupak's Empellon Cucina has exactly the same kind of intensely flavorful, completely original Mexican food of its parent, but in a more relaxed setting and with a smaller menu. All the tacos are first rate but don't miss the lobster one, which is something of a relevation.
This high-concept take on Mexican food from Alex Stupak was the last thing anyone expected from the former wd-50 dessert whiz. But it was a hit from the moment it opened, owing to its original, ultra-tight, and utterly awesome take on one of the least explored, but most loved ethnic cuisines.
There aren't a lot of good casual dining options on the Upper East Side, so Cascabel fills a much-needed niche in supplying cold margaritas and hot tacos to an area awash in low-end and highbrow options. It's low-key, relaxing, and gives you exactly what you were hoping for in a reliable way. Sometimes a person just wants a bottle of Sol and some nachos, and not the kind you get in a Yorkville sports bar.