Whole chapters could be written about what happens to Mexican cuisine with the ebb and flow of immigrants.
Some of it veers away from tradition, belying the rich diversity of Mexico’s rich culinary landscape, said Dario Wolos, one of the partners behind the Tacombi taquerias. Tacombi’s first iteration was serving tacos out of a converted VW bus (or combi) in Playa del Carmen.
“Culturally Mexico is such a rich country, and food-wise, about 1 percent of what’s available has made it through the filter of modern culture,” he said, citing 31 states and a federal district, and their distinct culinary traditions and histories.
The latest Tacombi taqueria to open is Cafe El Presidente, in the Flatiron District, named after President James Madison and for its proximity to Madison Square Park.
It shares the block with some upscale restaurants (Junoon is right across the street), but the vibe is amazingly relaxed, and it’s easy to kick back with some tacos and a bottle of beer or an “aguas fresca” with the thought that you’re somewhere in Mexico.
This is no halfhearted nod to Mexican artwork with brightly colored striped blankets and skulls. Here an in-house design team has built out the space—down to the particular feel and height of the chairs and tables. Everything is excruciatingly intentional but you’d never know.
That dedication to reproducing a space and feel is “very much like cultural anthropology,” said Wolos. A few team members travel to Mexico, “to the oddest places we can find and do research there, and we go every month, methodically. Over time we’re building an archive of what we want to do with Tacombi.”
Some of the traditions run deep, back around 10 generations, he said. “These things, they are passed on like language, parents to children and so on. In Monterrey, in Mexico City, in Merida, so many of these cities have been around for 300 years, in some cases more.”
“I go to Sunset Park, and I eat at those restaurants, and they do things that they don’t do in Mexico,” Wolos said, using the example of sour cream on tacos. “So it’s hard when you’re in the U.S. to fight what people already think is Mexican food. When you get down to it there’s so much untold variety. … What we’re trying to do at Tacombi is share this history and how this history has created our food culture today. So as we build our taquerias around New York City, each neighborhood taqueria is going to share these values, create a greater appreciation for Mexican food and culture.”
The care and attention shows in the food. The carne asada taco at Cafe El Presidente is one my favorites. At my local neighborhood taqueria, a few blocks from Corona, Queens, with plenty of Mexican patrons, it’s good but fairly tough and I take that for granted. But at Cafe El Presidente, it is tender Black Angus skirt steak, grilled in the Monterrey style, where Wolos is from. It is bursting with flavors, marinated in a mix that says summer: cilantro, garlic, onion, jalapeno, and lime juice ($14.95 for four).
“The way people treat meat in the Monterrey tradition, it’s not famous like Wagyu in Japan but it’s the same level of respect. We don’t market it at $10 million a pound.”
The manner in which the meat is sourced, cut, pounded, and marinated, “It all goes into an arsenal of knowledge, whether that’s design or ingredient selection or product development,” Wolos said.
The crispy fish taco, made with beer-battered Alaskan cod, and topped with pickled cabbage, is much like biting into a cloud of fish, ever so light, with the slight tang of the pickles ($4.95).
The seared fish was also exceptional (daily catch, market price). When I had it, it was porgy (a fish full of flavor but with small bones, not the easiest to fillet) and it was delicious, with a golden sear, and seasoned with a red chili mojo de ajo (a garlic sauce), and topped with pico de gallo.
It all comes with homemade escabeche, salsa roja, and salsa verde on the side. But you might not miss these, given the excellent balance and seasoning.
My dining companion, who used to live just a few miles away from the border in southern California, close to avocado groves, was startled by the freshness of the avocados at Cafe El Presidente. Elsewhere in New York, in restaurants or grocery stores, he had tasted enough with touches of rancidity to tell him the avocados weren’t fresh.
It all goes down perfectly well with a bottle of ice-cold beer ($6.49–$7.49), or with some choice cocktails like a Paloma—tequila, fresh grapefruit juice and lime ($12.95), or jamaica sangria (fresh hibiscus with sherry, vermouth, and rum, $11.95).
If the food and drinks are eminently enjoyable, it’s in part due to the low-key vibe and friendly, solicitous service. As one might guess, it is also intentional; Wolos said the model of service is Mexico in the 1950s, his grandfather’s time.
“There should never be pretensions when it comes to something as important as eating,” he said. “It’s one of the things we have to do as people … you have to eat, you have to sleep. One of my grandfathers from Monterrey used to say—‘You have to get from point A to point B every day.’ So it’s like in the process there’s these things you just have to do. Eating is one of them. Your life is so short, eat well every single time you can. Enjoy every time you eat. Enjoy the simple little pleasures. And I think a lot of people who are very simple in Mexico live naturally this way. Life is simple so the little pleasures come through their culture and through their cuisine.”
Cafe El Presidente
30 W. 24th St. (between Sixth and Broadway)
Daily 7 a.m.–1 a.m.