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Have New York City's Mexican and Latino food offerings gotten massively better lately—or are New Yorkers just complaining less? I doubt we're complaining less (not in the DNA, sorry). Carolina Gonzalez and Seth Kugel, who came out last fall with the great Nueva York: The Complete Guide to Latino Life in the Five Boroughs, just launched a blog this week, to try to keep up with the city's fast-growing Latin American food and culture scene. I asked them for their thoughts on American attitudes towards Latin American food and for advice on where I should go eat immediately:
Where to find Latin cuisine's unsung heroes
Gonzalez: American foodies get too hung up on wanting Latin American food to be a culinary version of extreme sports—what’s the weirdest, hottest. Many seem to be less interested in cuisines that don’t rely on spice pyrotechnics or exotic fruits. But something as plain-sounding as plantain mash (Dominican mangú) or brined onions (a popular side dish in Ecuador) can be delicious. Caribbean food relies a lot on starch plus protein, so it doesn’t come off as flashy or sexy, but there’s some great stuff at places like El Malecón in Washington Heights or a hole-in-the-wall like Sazón Perez in Williamsburg — oxtail stew (rabo encendido), braised goat, stuffed ripe plantains.
Where to find great Brazilian and Ecuadorean food
Kugel: Excellent new Brazilian places are popping up where many Brazilians live, which is Astoria: There's the Rio Bonito market, essentially a Brazilian mini-supermarket, and the Brazilian food-by-the-pound spots nearby, like Copacabana. They’re like Korean deli salad bars, except good, and with carved roasted meats like in churrascarias.
Gonzalez: The Ecuadorean population has been growing tremendously in New York, but the food from that country is still virtually unknown. If the cuy (guinea pig) and guatita (tripe) are a bit much for some people, there are also great secos (stews with very little sauce) and, of course, seviche. The best Ecuadorean spots tend to be in Corona, Queens and Bushwick, Brooklyn (places like Barzola and Alex Aguinaga).
On the state of Mexican food in NYC
Kugel: I agree with Carolina that high-end Mexican cuisine in Manhattan is doing great—places like Pampano, Rosa Mexicano, Sueños. But I will give the naysayers some credit: We still don’t have a good citywide taco culture. If you work in midtown and live in SoHo, want Mexican and have $5 to spend, I can’t help you. OK, I can: Pampano’s Taqueria for lunch and La Esquina’s take-out counter for dinner. But those are just high-end places slumming it, so they don’t solve the problem, especially if you’re also in the market for a bakery selling pan dulce. For that, head to Taqueria Coatzingo in Jackson Heights; they have a new bakery, Panaderia Coatzingo, down the block.