How New York’s Mexican Speakeasy Got Back to Its Roots

Before opening their new taquería, the talent behind La Esquina headed to Mexico City for a refresher course

How New York's Mexican Speakeasy Got Back to Its Roots

Tamales worth the wait at Doña Emi’s

Photo by Adam Wiseman

When La Esquina, New York City’s hip speakeasy-meets-taquería, set up shop in a retro-chic deli in 2005, the restaurant’s brain trust took inspiration straight from the source: the taquerías and tamale joints of Mexico City. Now, 10 years later, the owners are planning a new taquería. But first they decided it was time to get back to the source of their ideas—by recreating that first trip. Owner Derek Sanders, consultant Richard Ampudia (the godfather of New York’s Mexican cuisine), and head chef Adrian Ramirez headed out on a whirlwind trip to visit some of the very same places they’d visited a decade ago, from family restaurants to hipster havens. And they shared their itinerary with us. Here’s how to do Mexico City the La Esquina way:

Stay up late for El Farolito’s el pastor tacos
“El Farolito was the first place we went when we got off the plane 10 years ago. It’s been in the neighborhood I grew up in since I was a child, and it’s always good to go back.”

Ramirez: “They served the best tacos I’ve ever had. It was totally incredible—they made the tortillas in front of you and the marinade they used was really good and super fresh.”

Sanders: “I was blown away by the sheer simplicity of it—so simple, but so delicious. Plus, it’s fun to watch them in action; we got there sometime after midnight and they almost couldn’t keep up with the customers.”

Ampudia: “It’s really that kind of spot; the kind of place you go after a few beers.”—Paseo De La Reforma 36, 06600

Ampudia, Sanders, and Ramirez with well-known local food writer Francoise "Pancha" Vincent (at left)

Ampudia, Sanders, and Ramirez with well-known local food writer Francoise “Pancha” Vincent (at left)

Photo by Adam Wiseman

Wait as long as it takes for Doña Emi’s goat cheese and huitlacoche tamal
“The tamales! This little place had the best tamales that I’ve ever had in my life. They used fresh ingredients in sophisticated and modern ways that also respected tradition with combinations like huitlacoche and goat cheese, or poblano peppers and queso fresco.” Sanders: “The place is out of the way, only about 10 feet wide, and owned by two ladies in their mid-60s. On our first visit there they’d already sold out by 11am and were just sitting, drinking coffee. So of course the next day we went earlier.”

Ampudia: “They’ve owned it for years. They make however much product as they want and then that’s it. They were really the nicest people in the world and the food is incredible and totally unpretentious.” —Jalapa #278B, Colonia Roma

Develop a crush on the patroness at El Parnita
“El Parnita was opened by a woman who was a great home cook. After years of prodding, she finally opened her own restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall that served these crazy incredible tacos. Now it’s a huge, very popular cantina, but she still goes to every table and greets every guest while her son runs the floor.”

Ramirez: “All my friends from Mexico City know the place; everyone talks about how attentive she is to every table.”

Sanders: “She’s beautiful, mid- to late-70s, with a casual elegance that just fills up the room.”

Ampudia: “And there was also that mezcal that she gave us that helped with the crush! But she’s really turning into a legend. The place is only four or five years old and not in a location suitable for a restaurant, but she’s been very successful. She’s even opened a little store next door with salsa and mezcal.” —Avenida Yucatan, No. 84, local E2, Colonia Roma Norte

Ultra-hip Cocina Conchita

Ultra-hip Cocina Conchita

Photo by Adam Wiseman

Get creative at Cocina Conchita
“The ceviches and aguachiles at Cocina Conchita were so flavorful—super light and yet so powerful.”

Ampudia: “It was the most modern meal we had while we were there. The execution was flawless, the product was great, and it felt like everything was done right—from the china to the lighting to the young, efficient hipster staff. In Mexico we often emulate trends that come from other countries, but Cocina Conchita felt like something very new and truly Mexican.” —Álvaro Obregón, 154 Colonia Roma

Bring it all home (in a way)
“The restaurants we visited featured food that was so simple but so delicious. That was a great lesson—with this new taquería we want to focus on fewer dishes that we do very, very well.” Ampudia: “Chef [Ramirez] is designing dishes that were inspired by a lot of things we saw in Mexico City, but unfortunately in New York you can’t get many of the traditional ingredients, like huitlacoche.”

Ramirez: “It’s also hard for us to get the ingredients at that same level of freshness. But really, the point of the trip was inspiration, so we’ve picked up some ideas and will use them in our own way back in New York.”

Sanders: “The chefs in Mexico City were maintaining the cuisine, but they weren’t afraid to be creative with it, weren’t afraid to introduce a new ingredient if it was local, weren’t afraid to try a new combination. We were rigorous about being traditional when we first started, but I came back with a sense of freedom about what we can do and how we can adapt that to how America eats.”

Ampudia: “It’s funny, now kale is being used in Mexico City, so clearly there’s some cross-pollination. But if they’re getting creative in Mexico City with unexpected ingredients, why can’t we do it here? It’s a very exciting concept for people who love to make crazy food for the people of New York, who can be very demanding.”

>>Next: 9 Mexican Foods That You’ve Never Heard of But Should Try Immediately

Maggie Fuller is a San Francisco–based but globally oriented writer driven to provoke multicultural worldviews as a multimedia journalist. She covers sustainability, responsible travel, and outdoor adventure.
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