Transplants from Texas to New England long for abundant sunshine, open roads and — most importantly — Mexican food. "But we have Mexican food!" Bay Staters doth protest, unaware that the lumpy burritos and watered down tequila that count as authentic Mexican cuisine up here would never pass muster with even the least epicurean-minded Texan. Therefore, I set out to perform a service to lost Texans and New Englanders alike: find the best Mexican food in the Boston area.
First, let’s get a few things straight.
Number one: Burritos do not count. No amount of Qdoba, Chipotle or even Anna’s Taqueria will suffice to fulfill my Tex-Mex cravings. "Burrito" did not enter my vocabulary until chains like Taco Bell appeared on the scene, and in fact burritos originated in that most un-Texas-like place: California.
Number two: Hot sauce, salsa, and pico de gallo are three separate condiments. While some Texans may indeed use the terms "hot sauce" and "salsa" interchangeably — much like Coke can also mean Dr. Pepper — we would never mistake pico de gallo for salsa. Pico de gallo (which means "rooster’s beak"), often served with other sides like sour cream and guacamole, is a chunky combination of raw tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and jalapeno peppers. Salsa is the cooked, liquefied version, usually served with chips, and hot sauce can be defined as any of the thin, vinegar-based sauces like Cholula and Tabasco. Most of the Mexicans I know put hot sauce on everything. I once traveled through Austria with a few folks from Ciudad Ju¡rez who kept hot sauce in their pockets and even doused their Wiener schnitzel. Some taquerias specialize in their own sauces, which at one of my favorite taco stands (operated out of a roadside trailer) is nothing more than liquefied jalapenos — not for the faint of heart.
I’ll summarize other ground rules by clarifying that real margaritas have salt and fresh lime juice. tequila shots can be taken straight, with lime and salt, or even with cinnamon and orange, and I’m not even going to get into the bastardization that is Velveeta-spawned queso (cheese dip). With that out of the way, we are ready to begin with my top five finalists.
Tu y Yo, Somerville
Fashioned after a Mexican fonda (a hostel with home-cooked meals), Tu y Yo is one of my favorite restaurants in Boston. This tiny gem, tucked into Powderhouse Square (about a ten-minute walk from the Davis Square T stop), offers food deeply rooted in Mexican culture. Tex-Mex purists may feel a bit lost at first, but will undoubtedly be won over by the flavor and colors of "You and I."
While dinner is excellent, if a bit steep ($13-$18), I actually prefer stopping by Tu y Yo for brunch on weekends, which is not only cheaper but features my favorite dish, huevos divorciados (two eggs sunny-side up on a fried tortilla, with red and green sauces and refried black beans). The caf© de olla is a treat (coffee brewed with chocolate, cinnamon, and orange peel), and while Tu y Yo does not offer liquor, they do serve a range of wine, sangria, and beer. A Slow Food snail icon adorns the menu, much like yellowed reviews and awards adorn the crimson and orange walls. Those in need of a Mexican food education will appreciate the pictorial glossary at the back of the menu (with entries like nopales, huitlacoche, and amaranth). Best of all, the menu proudly proclaims "No Burritos!!!" — encouraging even the sepia-tinged se±ors hanging out over the bar (photographed with guns, sombreros, and abundant mustaches) to crack a smile.
La Paloma, Quincy
Of all of my finalists, La Paloma represents the truest Tex-Mex feel. While it’s a bit of a trek for those of us near Boston proper, La Paloma is definitely worth it. I know a couple of Colorado transplants who make monthly pilgrimages out on the red line (La Paloma is a short walk from the North Quincy T stop). The d©cor is laid-back with a "homey" atmosphere, and the menu and drinks are all reasonably priced (dinner entrees from $7-16). A vegetarian pick: cheese and onion enchiladas with verde sauce. La Paloma offers a wide range of tequila and a long list of margaritas and specialty drinks under $7. With these kind of prices (not to mention the freshly made salsa), I almost feel like I’m back home.
Ol©, Inman Square, Cambridge
Ol© offers a citified atmosphere and menu that may bode well for Houston and Dallas residents used to chi chi gourmet food — not to mention the expense. But as the saying goes, you get what you pay for: superb margaritas, to-die-for guacamole (prepared right at your table), and excellent mole (a traditional sauce made with chocolate and pumpkin seeds). While no Tex-Mex restaurant I can recall offers organic baby spinach and Canadian goat cheese, Ol©’s flavors still form a veritable fiesta in your mouth. Entrees range from $15-26, and the menu features a plethora of seafood and creative concoctions, like a vegetarian "lasagna" with chile poblanos on a corn puree. Save your pennies and treat yourself, or that special someone, to Boston Mexican done right.
Boca Grande, Brookline, Boston and Cambridge
Boca Grande caters to those in the market for Mexican fast foodâ€”but not too fast. While there is no table service and the counter ordering process can prove a bit hectic, Boca Grande still offers real plates and silverware to dine-in customers (a plus for the eco-conscious), and there are plenty of complete meals (an entr©e served with rice and beans) on the menu. All of the food is prepared fresh on location, and I particularly appreciate the vegetarian specialty, marinated tofu enchiladas. (My omnivorous partner-in-crime can vouch for the chicken tamales, which are roughly as big as your head). The d©cor of the Coolidge Corner location may leave a bit to be desired, but the atmosphere is nonetheless cozy and cheerful, perfect for treating those recession winter blues.
Your Own Kitchen
Have you tried all of the above and still felt something lacking? Then never fear, because the perfect Mexican meal is never farther than your own stove. The biggest challenge to preparing authentic Mexican food may be knowing where to shop, but neighborhoods with concentrations of Latino immigrants are always a safe bet. My favorite Hispanic grocery is Hi-Lo in Jamaica Plain, which offers bins full of ripe avocados and plantains (however, the organic-minded should shop elsewhere). Within its haphazardly organized shelves, Hi-Lo features a wide variety of imports at reasonable prices (much more diverse and reasonable than, say, Shaw’s cheesy "Shop the World" section). I like to stock up on packages of dried chiles, fresh tortillas, and the ubiquitous Mexican white cheese. To get you started, here is my favorite salsa recipe, adopted from my college roommate’s host mother during her study abroad in Mexico. ¡Ol©!
4 tomatoes (preferably in season)
Enough water to cover the tomatoes
3 dried red chiles (may vary amount depending on desired spiciness)
2 cloves garlic
1 medium onion, diced
1 fresh jalape±o, diced
Finely chopped cilantro, to taste
Boil the tomatoes with the red chiles and one garlic clove, until the skin of the tomatoes begins to break. Drain but save the water (can be used to thin the salsa later if necessary). Put the boiled ingredients, plus the jalape±o, half of the diced onion, and the other garlic clove into a blender; blend but leave chunky (add retained water if too thick). Pour contents of the blender into a bowl, stir in the remainder of the onion and the cilantro, and serve with chips or fresh tortillas.