Celebrate the Holiday at These Mexican Hotspots
May means it’s time for America to celebrate its favorite south-of-the-border holiday, and what better way to do so than with a fabulous Mexican meal? From the true and authentic to the trendy and interpretive, these spots are solid reminders of just how much fun this cuisine can be.
El Vez (259 Vesey St.)At the northern edge of Battery Park, El Vez is where Lower Manhattan comes to get its Mexican x. Part of the ashy STARR restaurant group, El Vez o ers plenty of entertainment both on and o the plate. There’s a photo booth by the bar (which houses some 150 tequilas and mezcals), a grab-and-go burrito station, and extremely photogenic sculptures made of tequila bottles.
A beacon of modern Mexican, the menu channels Mexican food through a decidedly American lter. That said, it’s so well executed that even purists are sure to be pleased by options like guacamole with pomegranate, blood orange, and pine nuts; butternut squash quesadillas; “Baja style” whole branzino with watercress and pickled jalapenos; and duck mole manchamantales, a stew of sorts served with pickled pumpkin and cactus salad. Nine types of margaritas come by-the-glass or in pitchers and elevate the drink into creations tinged with ginger and rhubarb in the Diablo Ahumado and hibiscus, white pepper, and aromatic salt in the Hibiscus. Needless to say, this place stays buzzy all night.
La Contenta (102 Norfolk St.)
Fans of the lm Easy Rider will feel like they unearthed a gem with La Contenta, a tiny neighborhood Mexican joint down on the Lower East Side named after a cantina in the lm. Its name translates to “the happy” and promises to have its guests feeling as such. In contrast to most Mexican restaurants in the city—including those in this article—La Contenta is the real deal when it comes to authentic cuisine.
Mexican chef and owner Luis Arce Mota, who’s sharpened his knives in numerous top establishments in the city, prepares pork feet in a spicy stew, queso dip of four different cheeses, and battered cat sh tacos with chipotle aioli. Mexican mixologist Alex Valencia, meanwhile, makes sure guests get nice and juiced before venturing out into the surrounding streets. Cocktails are fashioned from all manner of agave liquors—sotol and raicilla add interesting twists to classic drinks like a Negroni—and for the daring, there’s even pulque, a pungent fermented-maguey drink made palatable when mixed with grape, oregano, mint, and lime in the Pulque de Uvas, or simply with fresh pineapple juice.
Playa Betty’s (320 Amsterdam Ave.)
Inspired by the tastes and style of the Southern California coastline, Playa Betty’s brings the West Coast to the Upper West Side and is one of the closest things to a surf shack that Manhattan has. A neon sign about the open kitchen tells guests to “eat tacos!”, which come as options such as the Tac-O-Fella of fried oysters with spinach and chorizo and the I Can Hass Taco? with tempura-battered hass avocados. There are also “Tot”chos, a platter of tater-tots piled high with all the usual nacho fixings, and guacamole is served with various sides for diners to add in themselves.
For the health-focused, brown rice and red quinoa grain bowls with options like lemon-marinated kale and grilled tofu sound like just the thing a Hollywood starlet would eat after a workout on the waves. In the warm months, it’s the type of place where flip-flops and cutoffs seem perfectly appropriate. As indicated by the cheery teal walls and friendly staff, Playa Betty’s urges its guests to pull up a bar stool at the large bar, throw back a frozen paloma or two (though they’re known to be strong), and not take life too seriously.
Gran Eléctrica (5 Front St., Brooklyn)
Nestled under the Manhattan Bridge near the waterfront in the tiny Brooklyn neighborhood of Dumbo, the back garden at Gran Eléctrica is the spot to be on breezy, warm spring nights spent on this side of the East River. Small tables underneath strings of fairy lights are grounds for slow dinners of exquisite Mexican fare made of the freshest ingredients—think potent ceviche of market sh-of-the-day, chorizo made from Berkshire pork encased with Chihuahua cheese in quesadillas, seasonal vegetable tacos topped with micro greens, and cod marinated in fennel and basted with agave and cilantro pesto served alongside seasoned long-grain rice.
Cocktails are equally original and well crafted, making use of plenty of garden ingredients— blackberries in the sangria, red beets and lime in the Margarita de Remolacha—and the mezcal- based Oaxacan Old Fashioned with mole bitters is not to be missed by lovers of the stalwart drink. As nights progress, the bar inside fills with a cool local crowd, but don’t expect any raucous rounds of tequila shots; this is a classy joint. There’s a distinctly artful feel about the place, and if you look carefully at the Day of the Dead–themed illustrations on the wallpaper, you’ll notice that the scenes are quirkily set in Brooklyn.