i feel really blessed to be exposed to such a wide variety of cultures via cuisine in such close proximity, and mexican, for its wide variety of flavors, colours, textures, and general festiveness has always held a special place in my tummy. for the exposure to so much mexican, i am grateful.
rising in the east, the sun first shines on el potro. i stopped in on a saturday afternoon, with maybe one patron at a table and two or three guys at the bar (next to which a jukebox was blasting mexican heavy metal ballads. preferring to sit by the window as i'm partial to daylight, i caught the waitresses eye diagonally off the mirror, which runs on the upper half of the wall from the front to the back side wall of the restaurant. her warm smile piqued my appetite. the placemat was tacky, and the tortilla chip basket was plastic... already el potro was showing lots of potential for authenticity. the menu was varied, with lots of item listed that don't make it onto too many other menus in other mexican restaurants. i started off with guacamole (the menu read that the guac is made to order), which arrived in a plastic mocajete lined with lettuce leaves. at first i thought the bowl had been lined with tortilla (the inversion of cherry on the ice cream met with similar glee), but the device of lining the bowl so as to avoid chipping your chips in order to scoop up the last bit is a technique many establishments could pick up on. the service was courteous and consistent without being stuffy, and the kitchen coordinated with the service. as i finished, a decent pause was allowed before my flautas arrived. flautas are moderately available in mexican restaurants, but i don't see them with cheese alone too often, and life seldom gets better than fried cheese. two flutes, draped in salsas rojo y verdre... lip smackers. the finale was an item off the specials list (not as in daily specials, but items the establishment specializes in), that with my broken spanish i was able to communicate with the waitress to determine they were flat, made of corn, and topped with sasla verde and cheese. well, the name escapes me, but what was served up was three masa tarts pinched at the rims to prop up the crust, with a thin layer of what was almost as bold and pungent as a cilantro pesto, and sprinkled with a grated dry salty cheese. the masa was unsalted and made with litte fat, in fact, they almost tasted baked (without any char marks visible). the alkalinity of the masa was present on the tongue as with oil-cured olives (or a battery, if you've ever licked one). this dish has a lot of potential to be a hit with kids.
heading west we skip over las margaritas, not ignoring though the diner a few storefronts closer to steinway which, despite being a diner offers various tamales, indicated with signs on the window. i sigh everytime i pass by las margaritas with its seemingly gringo-alluring name and impassionate menu. tacos mexico across the street on 38th street with a lot less festiveness in the decor and a potentially seedy bar adjoined, has a fair selection of typical but not gringacized food.
further west to the east of the 31st border, lies viva el mariachi, that one spot chowhounds and chowfleas (a term i'm using to describe foodies that are rebelling from their zagatesque roots, yet sniff out opinions rather than sink their teeth into risks) alike both applaud and are appalled by. personally, i think it is great. goat specials every weekend, a wide variety of breakfast taquitos, gorditas... VEL may well leave enough to be desired in the area of ambiance, and variety of opinion is a characteristic that makes for colorful conversation... but stop slighting VEL or i'll beat you with a burrito and send you packing to taco bell.
to the west of the 31st street divide lie two restaurants on the south bank of broadway, neither of which i have visited, and both which i have been eyeing for a while and am convinced are worth trying and have been discussed this week, but let's skip ahead to the end of the rainbow.
the sun sets on the playing fields of rainey park (a bit south of broadway @ vernon blvd). it's no red hook playing fields or sunset park, but there are mexican families out there, playing volleyball without too much regard for competition, and a handful of vendors with various foods, inducing a shaved ice vendor that utilizes a hand-propelled ice shaving machine and a block of ice to shave from. most of the vendors show up on weekends, and are as covert as a family affair. i won't spoil the surprises that may lie in wait, but i would recommend, if the inclination were present, for you to petition for the park to be at least partially converted to lighted soccer fields. mexican, central and south american foods, by the east river, and the sunset... that would be a drool come true.