New York Has Amazing Mexican Food. Here’s Where to Find It.

Whoever said New York City has bad Mexican food obviously has no idea what they’re talking about. Here’s where to go for regional offerings that say otherwise.

September 8, 2023 6:20 am
The crab tlayuda at elNico in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
The crab tlayuda at elNico in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Comparing the Mexican food offerings in New York City to a place like, say, Los Angeles is obvious folly. Yet, the old trope that NYC is devoid of great Mexican restaurants is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Now, especially in Brooklyn, regional Mexican cuisine is proliferating in new ways that expose New Yorkers to the rich tapestry of unique flavors, dishes and ingredients that come from various parts of the vast country. 

Yet, just a few decades ago, the city was inarguably a difficult place to find Mexican cuisine. While cities like San Antonio, Chicago and LA were home to large populations of Mexican-born immigrants, New York lagged behind in that respect. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Mexican food began to pop in the city, as more Northeasterners gained a curiosity for different types of international cuisine, and Southwesterns began to plant roots there.

Besides a growing domestic demand, more people began immigrating to New York at this time because of both issues and developments in South and Central America, such as the devaluation of the Mexican peso, the Central American civil wars and the Immigration and Control Act (IRCA). Within the decade, dozens of restaurants around Manhattan were serving up sizzling plates of fajitas, overflowing frozen Margaritas and burritos stuffed with cheese and ground beef. In other words, Mexican riffs that catered to American tastes were all the rage.

“Twenty years ago, most Mexican restaurants and bars offered everything and anything,” says Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez, the co-owner of Superbueno. “They offered it all from ceviches and burritos to enchiladas and mole poblano. Today, we’re able to visit places that are focused on different regions or specialties or both. You can find just Oaxacan restaurants, Mexico City-style tacos, mariscos and more. Tacos nowadays are almost like pizza in New York — only one style was once available, but now you can find 30 different types wherever you go in the city.”

By the mid-2000s, New Yorkers were flocking to taco stalls in places like Riverside Park and Red Hook, but a stigma remained around the concept of “elevated” Mexican cuisine. It isn’t until the last decade that Mexican restaurants began to shirk the idea that free chips and salsa were a given, and that there’s more to a Mexican cocktail list than a Margarita. 

“Very few Mexican restaurants can command prices comparable to those of French restaurants, even when using the same fresh ingredients and, in many cases, the same Mexican workers,” wrote historian Jeffrey Pilcher at the time. “Customers have simply refused to consider the two cuisines as equals.”

Today, there are several Mexican restaurants in New York City with Michelin stars, including the constantly in-demand Cosme in Flatiron and Casa Enrique in Long Island City. Around all the five boroughs, authentic Mexican cuisine can be found in nearly every format, from taco trucks with cult followings to multi-course tasting menus, hole-in-the-wall birria spots and trendy restaurants flowing with artisanal mezcal. Seemingly every month, lists proclaiming “the best new spots” in the city finally include places with earthy mole, fresh fish tacos or crispy tlayudas.

“Mexican cuisine in New York has grown and shows that it can be upscale too,” says Feranada Serrano, Executive Chef at elNico. “Mexican restaurants are not only Tex-Mex food, tacos and burritos, but now, Mexican food and restaurants have attracted a bigger audience who are open and curious to try and learn about regional Mexican cuisine.” 

trio of salsas with pickles and corn tostadas on a wooden table
Trio of salsas with heirloom corn tostadas at Ixta


It’s unsurprising that Oaxacan cuisine has grown quickly in popularity in New York, considering the fact that savvy travelers have been flocking to the region in record numbers during the past few years. The sprawling Southwestern state is known for arid climates where agaves harvested for mezcal grow, and for signature dishes such as mole (an ancient saucy dish made with chiles, nuts and other spices), tlayudas (large crunchy tortillas covered in a hefty spread of refried beans and more) and memeles (masa cakes filled with salsa and topped with fresh ingredients). 

Oaxacan cuisine has particularly been taking root in Brooklyn, from upscale tasting menus like at Michelin-starred Claro in Gowanus, to the bright cobalt facade of Casa Azul in Park Slope. At Claro, find an ever-rotating menu inspired by the flavors of Oaxaca, from richly savory varieties of mole to garnachas de venado with venison, curtido and an aged sheep’s milk cheese. Curated mezcal flights also help to seal the deal. 

The family who owns Casa Azul grew up on a farm in a small desert town in southern Oaxaca and now bring authentic Oaxacan cuisine to Brooklyn, such as tlayudas Oaxaqueña and pollo rostizado — organic chicken marinated in mole negro and served with heirloom cauliflower. 

Regional specialties from Oaxaca can also be found in Manhattan at Ixta in an over-the-top setting, where they specialize in mezcal and elevated twists on traditional dishes, and in Astoria at Ruta — a warm and vibrant restaurant featuring enchiladas with homemade tortillas, as well as steak Oaxaqueño served with a mole coloradito and nopales salad. 


Besides tequila, whose denomination of origin means it can only be made within the Mexican state of Jalisco, the region is also responsible for another universally beloved culinary joy: the birria taco. A tasty dish with centuries-old roots, birria actually refers to a rich stew that’s traditionally made with either goat or lamb meat, served extremely tender in a hearty consome with dried chiles. 

Birria meat can also be shredded and turned into tacos, which is the name of the game at Tacos El Bronco in Sunset Park — a longstanding taco truck with a cult following, which now has a brick and mortar location as well. There, find nearly 20 varieties of birria tacos, from carnitas and pastor to lengua (tongue) and cabeza (veal head). 

Guadalajaran specialties, like the hangover soaker that is the torta ahogada (drowned sandwich), are the main characters at Prospect Heights’ Cruz Del Sur. The low-key hole in the wall is truly transportive, with a spacious back patio area and slow cooked goat birria tacos, carne en su jugo (a hearty, traditional Guadalajara stew) and ahogados made with birote bread that’s baked on premises.

On the Upper West Side right by the Natural History Museum, you can also find elevated Jaliscan staples at restaurateur Cristina Castañeda’s spot, Covacha. This Bib Gourmand restaurant is known for its cozy atmosphere, top-notch tequila selection and elevated riffs on classic Jaliscan street food “garnachas,” or artisanal corn creations. Quesabirrias combine the stewy deliciousness of birria with cheesy quesadillas, and an Orchard Molote spotlights Mexican vegetables inside a crunchy empanada. 

Central Mexico

Combining the culinary influence of both Guadalajara and historic mountain town Guanajuato is the stylish hideaway Aldama in Williamsburg. There, co-owner Christopher Reyes says he and his partner draw upon the foodways from both of their hometowns to serve up dishes reminiscent of traditional home cooking with elevated gastronomic riffs. 

“Because New York is a multicultural city, you can’t just not have many different offerings of Mexican food for hundreds of thousands of people that are far away from home,” says Reyes when asked about the importance of regional Mexican representation in the city. “It’s important for people to have a piece of home close by. Aldama contributes to this by always aiming to serve the dishes that we interpret as ‘Mexican street food’ in a modern way while still staying true to recipes that people are used to having back home in Mexico.”

One of Aldama’s dishes that definitely harkens back to their Central Mexican roots is an oxtail barbacoa, slow braised and served with hummus and a beef jus. A dish with Caribbean roots, which was originated by the native Taino people, the modern Mexican method of roasting meat outdoors is called barbacoa, traditionally in a fire pit covered by maguey (agave) leaves. 

Head southbound to Bay Ridge to Coszcal de Allende for another interpretation of Guanajuatan cuisine. An authentic family-run restaurant with vibrant environs and dishes that call back to the picturesque mountain town, you can find Central Mexican specialties such as chiles en nogada here. The uniquely delicious dish is reminiscent of the Mexican flag and features poblano chiles stuffed with picadillo, smothered in a walnut cream sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and parsley. 

Aguachiles at Ensenada
Aguachiles at Ensenada


As one would imagine, coastal Mexican fare is all about mariscos, or seafood. In Williamsburg, the trendy Ensenada pays homage to Latin American coastal cuisine from its location right above the thrumming nightclub and vegan taco joint, Black Flamingo (they both have the same owner). Inspired by fish taco carts in Baja California, Ensenada spotlights sustainable seafood through dishes like ceviche, several types of aguachiles and tostadas. 

In Jackson Heights at Mariscos El Submarino, find aguachile negro served in a large, traditional black stone molcajete, in which raw shrimp, octopus and tilapia swim through a thin citrusy broth flecked with supremely spicy green and red chiles. A sign inside the relatively nondescript space aptly reads “el amor puede esperar el hambre no,” or “love can wait, hunger cannot.” 


Michoacán, located south and west of Guanajuato, is often referred to as “the soul of Mexico” and is home to one of the country’s most diverse indigenous populations, the Purépecha. An indigenous group to emerge in the area during pre-colonial times, their cuisine and that of Michoacán is more widely represented by Purépecha in Cobble Hill. There, carnitas are not to be missed, especially considering they are one of the top signature dishes of the region. Literally meaning “little meats,” carnitas is essentially Mexican pulled pork, made by slow-braising the meat with lime and spices until it is fall-apart tender. Find it stuffed into delicious tacos at Purépecha, and be sure to follow the order with Flan Michoacano — a traditional sweetened vanilla egg custard topped with caramel. 

Scallop Aguachile on a black plate with blue corn tortillas
Scallop aguachile at elNico

Mexico City 

Carnitas are also a hit at Mesa Coyoacan in Williamsburg, a warm and intimate restaurant with a long communal table at its heart. One of the most historic boroughs of Mexico City, Coyoacan is home to iconic locales like the Museo de Frida Kahlo and the inspiration for chef Iván Garcia’s restaurant. Having grown up in Mexico City, Garcia brings the flavors of his home to Brooklyn with dishes like Nopal Asado, a grilled cactus topped with Oaxacan cheese and rajas con crema, an Aztec delicacy. It’s perhaps Mexico City that also best represents the melting pot that is Mexico while also possessing its own unique, and for some, nostalgic culinary traditions, like the classic CDMX taco cart. 

At elNico, the stylish indoor-outdoor rooftop restaurant above the Penny Hotel in Williamsburg, Chef Serrano says she’s very much inspired by the street food of her childhood. “I grabbed traditional dishes and street food that I loved as a child and gave them my own personal twist without losing the identity of the dish,” Serrano says. “As a chef, I take the best from the memories I have, from the favorites I had as a kid, and make them my own by adding a twist that inspired me during my travels and after talking with friends. As I see it, cooking is about culture, about love, about tradition but also about evolution.”


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