New York City is known for many things. Mexican food is not one of them. In recent years, the Big Apple has been described as a supposed “Mexican food wasteland” that’s “consistently underrated — if not totally ignored.” In some ways, those sentiments ring true. Only around 3.5 percent of NYC’s 27,000-plus restaurants are Mexican restaurants, according to a new study of the Mexican cuisine landscape in the city. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth documenting.
Researchers from Stony Brook University compiled the past, present, and likely future of the Mexican restaurant landscape in a package of maps and histories called “The Mexican Restaurants of New York City.” It’s a visual reminder that, though the city lacks the presence and influence of Mexican restaurants like Los Angeles or San Antonio, Mexican food is an important part of NYC’s restaurant culture. Most of all, it’s a rebuttal to all of the people who arrive in New York only to proclaim that there’s no good Mexican food.
Stony Brook’s historical dive includes the number of Mexican restaurants in the city from the mid-20th century to today, location maps of where businesses are located, the price levels of Mexican food over time, and the proliferation of food trucks across the five boroughs. An interactive map allows you to see where and when Mexican restaurants arrived in the city, like Don Julio’s, which opened in 1929 and was billed as the “only Mexican Cabaret in New York.” It also shows where the Mexican enclaves have been and are located in the city, and explains why location matters.
As the population of people with Mexican ancestry increased in New York, so did the number of restaurants. People from Mexico were New York’s fastest-growing immigrant group at the start of the 21st century, 75 percent of whom came from the state of Puebla (hence the nickname “Puebla York”). The Stony Brook study also put a number to just how important people of Mexican descent are to New York’s restaurant industry as a whole: One 2004 study that’s cited in the package found more than 40 percent of Mexican men in the city’s labor force worked in food service and retail.
With the growth came the battle over supposed authenticity and price. Mexican food rarely gets the same price treatment as, say, sushi despite being a deeply complex cuisine that requires the skill to use an extensive number of fresh ingredients. Outliers like Atla and Cosme exist where the cost matches the quality thanks to all-star chefs like Daniela Soto-Innes, but for many, Mexican food is relegated to street food. The issue of correlating “authentic” with “cheap” is one problem the Stony Brook study examines.
As a Californian new to living in the city five years ago, I was admittedly one of those people who questioned where to find Mexican food in NYC. It seemed like there were five Chipotles for every one taco stand. But the restaurants are there if you know where to look, like the food from the Bushwick tortilla factory Tortilleria Mexicanas Los Hermanos, or the mole and agave spirits at La Contenta. It’s a cuisine that’s not given enough credit in New York City, and it’s long past time for the city’s Mexican restaurants to receive some respect.
Tackling the wide topic of Mexican cuisine in the United States’ largest city is no small task. It’s also a necessary one to ensure that recognition is given where recognition is due. New York’s famous restaurant scene is continuing to change due to the impact of COVID-19, and documenting food histories is the first step to ensuring the past isn’t lost. The interactive maps themselves are rabbit holes of information for anyone who loves New York City, restaurants, Mexican food, or just eating in general. If nothing else, the “The Mexican Restaurants of New York City” is a study to send to every person you hear lamenting that New York has never had quality Mexican food.
Find the full maps and study here (the maps work best on a computer rather than mobile).