I have only been to Mexico once and it was not under the most adventurous of culinary conditions; I was with family on a cruise ship that docked in Cozumel for eight hours. Even in this situation, what I wanted to do was find food rather than climb pyramids. We rented an old VW bug and went for a long, looping drive on a long, looping road and finally picked a cantina to lunch at. The chicken fajitas I had (I was so young) were quite nice, but the only thing I remember as significant about them was that they were prepared with far more fresh cilantro then I was used to getting on Mexican food in New Jersey.
Growing up, Bestfriend lived in Denver. I would visit him, but not as much as he visited me, and one of the many discussions we would have about the differences between Colorado and NJ concerned the disparity in the quality of Mexican food. It was true, Mexican food was just better on that side of the Rockies.
In a past life, I had a career that led to a rather nomadic existence. At one point, I was forced to live in Hollywood for six months. Not being one to dwell on the negative, I will simply say that LA does offer two things of merit to a traveling New Yorker: In ‘n Out burgers, and awesome two dollar tacos from trucks parked on the roadside.
For some reason, New York accepts all of its food to be at one of two extremes. For Italian, there is the ziti from the pizza shop or the ravioli from Babbo. For French there is the steak frites at l’Express, or the burger at DB, and for Mexican, there is the mystery meat at Benny’s Burritos, or the guacamole at Rosa Mexicana. These foods in New York seem to always be priced over $30.00 a dish, or to be some rotten facsimile of these dishes, made from the most cheap ingredients, in the most lazy of manners for under $10.00.
In spite of the variety of ethnic foods available in the city, seldom do you find someone offering good product, well prepared, at a fair price like people in their places of origin expect every day. The cheap, unexciting versions sell because the other options are 200% more expensive and many people making and consuming them don’t know or care to expect better. While the expensive restaurants trading in fancy versions of traditional dishes make a good living off people with money to spend who want a taste of the real thing.
What is sadly overlooked is the fact that, back home, the most basic versions of these cuisines, the humble everyday variety, can be both great and inexpensive. Every now and then, someone in the city comes along who knows this, sees this niche (or glaring hole) in the middle, slides in, makes quality, authentic food at appropriate prices, and reaps a windfall as a result. Think Otto, Les Halles, and now Pio Maya.
Pio Maya is finally open, and now, officially, the only thing LA has that New York doesn’t is In ‘n Out. Pio Maya is the small Taqueria on 8th street between 5th and 6th Avenues, and it is perfect. Everything on the menu is fresh, everything is made to order and nothing is over thirteen dollars (with most dishes falling in the $2.50-$9 range). This places is built to make honest Mexican food that Mexicans make themselves everyday, There are gorgeous little chickens roasting on a rotisserie, a flattop grill right in front of you on which they brown fresh meats for tacos to order, and a cooler full of brightly colored sweet, sodas.
Wife and I popped in last night and asked our old friend Zooma, the proprietor, to give us our first sample of his food and so far we love it all, we had:
Shrimp Soup (a special) A simple tomato broth with shrimp, and mussels in shell, with cilantro and celery and the taste of the Gulf of Mexico. I would compare it to good Manhattan clam chowder with the clean flavor well handled cilantro can provide.
Tamales, Pollo con Salsa If there is any one dish at Pio Mayo that is exponentially better then every other version I have ever had it is the tamale. Inside the skin is about equal portion spiced chicken and corn meal, and the two together become the flavors of simple rusticity. They do not become either a ridiculous way to show off rabbit (think Mesa Grill) or, even worse, a flavorless amalgam of mush the size of your head (think Caliente Cab Company.) The Tamales are $2.75 on the menu and one is exactly right to put with a taco or something else.
Cheese Chile Relleno On the menu it is served with rice and beans, in order to leave us some room, Zooma just gave us the Relleno. It would make sense that a roasted pepper (a favorite of mine) stuffed with a little fresh cheese, and simply dressed with a tomato sauce would be a natural preference, but some how every one I have tasted prior to this wonderful version, was somehow watery, thin, and heartless.
Tacos On our plates we each had one roast pork, one chorizo and one beef taco. The flavor of the roast pork was deep and savory, rather than somehow stewed on in some warm chaffing dish as is so often the case. The chorizo was chopped very small and browned on the flattop grill, giving it a great crunch, and the beef was small bits of what I would guess was a marinated flank steak, quickly browned on the griddle. All three were dressed with fresh lettuce, some queso fresco, a white sauce that had also appeared on the Relleno, and a dollop of perfect guacamole, and all came with the most authentic of Mexican food traditions, a section of lime.
For a very short menu, Pio Maya still has about twenty-five things I need to try. I imagine this will take me about one very happy week. There is at least one other place in New York trying to make honest tacos, a stand on the outside of a bodega on Avenue A called Snack Dragon, and they do a very solid job. But as far as perfect, soft, chewy tortillas with deeply flavored ingredients born of products available to the people that live day by day and work on the land that produces them, brought together to taste as fresh as food has to in a part of the world that is so hot, go to Pio Maya, find Zooma, and order two or four things. Guaranteed you will find something you love there.