[The Amateur Gourmet is on vacation and, while he’s gone, he’s asked his friends to cover for him. Today is a post from one of Adam’s closest friends, his old roommate Diana Fithian! You know Diana, you love Diana, and now you get to read a post written by her just for you. Aren’t you excited? Oh, and just so she fits in with all the mighty guest posters here on the blog, Diana is the author of “Girls on the Clock” which was recently performed at Brown University as part of their Playwright’s Rep. Take it away Diana!]
Really good Mexican food is hard to come by in New York. My boyfriend Mark is from Santa Fe, New Mexico and finds most NYC Mexican mediocre at best. I’m from Virginia so I’m maybe not quite as good a judge, my town didn’t even have a Taco Bell until I was in high school, but his high standards have rubbed off on me. One Mexican restaurant we both approve of is Mercadito on Avenue B between 11th and 12th, but the steep-ish price keeps us from going too often.
The Mexican gods must have heard our prayers because just a few weeks ago a new spot opened literally across the street from good old Mercadito: Mercadito Cantina, basically Mercadito’s cheaper, prettier, more fun younger sister.
(We’d like to apologize for the quality of our pics, we had too much faith in the camera on Mark’s iphone. The technology doesn’t do the tacos justice).
We’ve eaten here three times in the past week, and yesterday I tried to take Adam for lunch but sadly discovered they don’t open until 5:00pm. Instead, I took him to the original Mercadito and spent our whole lunch comparing the two.
Mercadito Cantina’s setup is like Momofuku, cozy and bright with long, communal pine tables. Already it’s pleasantly bustling. Mark and I find this place a little too good to be true, like the cute shy new kid on the first day of school: you hope maybe you and him will be friends but soon the cool crowd snatches him up right from under your nose. We’re holding our breath waiting for this place to get overly mobbed and hike its prices (sure enough, last night our favorite drinks had gone from $6 to $7- in two days!)
We like to start with one of their micheladas, which is traditionally beer on the rocks with lime and salt and maybe tomato or clamato juice and a couple drops of Worcestershire sauce.
They have one traditional and a bunch of sweet miches with fruit and spicy syrup. We’ve sampled a few in pineapple, cucumber and watermelon flavors. They’re awesome, though there’s some kind of flavoring in them that makes them taste a little soapy, like very delicious soapy water.
Salsa and chips is $2.50 for one, $4.50 for two, etc. with six different salsas to choose from. Definitely worth it compared to the watery jarred stuff you might get for free other places. My favorite, the Cacahuate, is grilled tomato, toasted peanuts and chile de arbol blended smooth.
Last night we got the ungodly hot habanero salsa which was warm and creamy with crema fresca and tasted like nacho cheese sauce from hell. I’d take a bite of the salsa, burn my mouth, then take a big gulp of my drink- only to remember that there’s chili syrup in my drink! Luckily they leave a big carafe of ice water at every table. We went through a carafe and a half last night.
We also like to get a side dish of wild mushrooms and huitlacoche for $6. The huitlacoche (corn fungus) melts into the mushrooms and creates an intensely earthy sauce reminiscent of truffle oil. I did some wikipedia research and did you know huitlacoche is “a Nahuatl word reportedly meaning raven’s excrement”? Yum!
Our favorite thing on the menu is the Make Your Own Tacos with Carnitas De Puerco- Berkshire pork and pork belly. It’s listed in kilograms rather than pounds so our first night there we spent fifteen minutes debating the conversion like the ugly American gringos we are and then settled for ¼ kg for $15.50 – it turned out to be about half a pound and the perfect amount for two to share.
The dish includes a choice of two salsas, diced onion and cilantro, six mini corn tortillas and adorable tiny key lime halves. I usually end up humbled by food with assembly required, like when I recently ordered do-it-yourself spring rolls at a Thai place and found I didn’t have nearly the manual dexterity needed to make them properly, but these are foolproof and delicious.
Unlike some Mexican places (like the Taco Bell of my youth) you leave here not weighed down with grease and melted cheddar but with a spring in your step, pleasantly full and buzzed from the booze and chilis. This place is a great bargain and our bill has always been under $40 for two. Mark and I will be visiting with a stalker-like frequency so if you go you’ll probably see us there!