Monday, August 02, 2010

A Taste of Mexico in Massachusetts

One thing I miss about the southwest is the abundant variety of Mexican food the area offers.  I often find myself in the mood for a casual, affordable, interesting meal from a number of Mexican-inspired genres I was familiar with from growing up in the Phoenix area- some of which don't seem to be implemented very well in the Boston area.  However, after searching around off and on the past decade I've found a few restaurants that are serving up some outstanding food.

There are a few formats within this group I'd like to talk about.  I'm a fan of almost all of them, and always on the lookout for more so I thought I'd offer up six styles of Mexican food establishments and the best representations I've found in the Boston area for further discussion.  Leave a comment below and let me know what you've found that you think others should check out. 

Here are six styles of Mexican restaurants and where to find representations of each nationally and in the Boston area: 

The Sit Down Chips & Salsa and Corona Mexican Restaurant

This is the food I have a taste for on a near-daily basis.  It's the kind of place where you get a burrito smothered with enchilada sauce and cheese along with rice and beans and all the free chips and salsa you can eat.  Cold Coronas are readily available.  Some old guard Phoenix area favorites include Serrano's, Mi Amigos, Macayo, and Garcia's.  Over time ambitious restaurants impressed as well: Tia Rosa, Garduno's (evidently now defunct and/or renamed Camarones), and Abuelo's.

This category is increasingly represented nationally or near-nationally, but beware of weak implementations of the concept in the northeast which ultimately doom the franchise.  I've had lousy meals at a Garcia's in Albany (now defunct), and On The Border restaurants in the northeast (whereas I think they're pretty good closer to Mexico).

National interpretations: Don Pablos, On The Border, Chi Chi's (now defunct)
Best representation near Boston: Margaritas
Tell-tale offering: Enchilada-Style Chimichanga 

Authentic Gourmet Mexican Cuisine

This isn't really what I'm talking about- neither here in Boston or back in Arizona.  This is fine dining inspired by regional Mexican dishes.

National interpretation: None
Best representation in Boston: Casa Romero
Tell-tale offering: Mole anything 

The Burrito Bar

This category is enthusiastically represented locally.  The menu is almost exclusively burritos and usually chips and salsa.  You order at the counter, take delivery of the food, find your own seat and clean up after yourself. Bonus points to restaurants with a salsa bar- an unfortunately rare commodity in the Boston area.

National interpretation: Chipotle
Best representation near Boston: Anna's Taqueria, Qdoba.  Chipotle is still my favorite.
Tell-tale offering: Basic menu burritos and chips & salsa
Note: Burrito places like Boloco serve up tasty food but they're really not trying to serve up Mexican food.  Sure you can get a decent burrito with Mexican ingredients buts the presence of Thai, Buffalo, and Teriyaki burritos tell us where their allegiances lie.  It's with the burrito- not Mexico.

Full-Range Mexican Take-Out

Here you order from a menu that's similar to the sit-down chips, salsa and Corona restaurant but you take it to go or seat yourself.  There's tons of these in Arizona ranging from the very authentic Filibertos to the more mainstream Someburros.

In looking at some Yelp reviews in this space I see mention of Taco Bell as a reference point in this category.  I'm not sure what to say about that.  On one hand it's a format many are familiar with so it's worth discussing.  On the other hand so much of the menu is contrived it's hard to say what Taco Bell does for the national discussion on Mexican food.  At any rate there aren't even many Taco Bells in the Boston area and most are paired with a KFC.

National interpretation: Baja Fresh (2 locations in Massachusetts now both closed)
Best representation near Boston: Still looking but Boca Grande in Brighton isn't bad.
Tell-tale offering: More than just burritos and tacos are available.  Look for the presence of at least an enchilada on the menu.

Baja-Style Fish Tacos

You see these all over the place in the San Diego area.  Beer battered fish with cabbage and a unique spicy slightly-creamy dressing on a soft corn shell.  Quite a delicacy.

Pelly's in Carlsbad is excellent and Taco Surf in Pacific Beach is pretty good too.  I've heard great things about Wahoo's Fish Taco as well.  Rubio's is a chain I'd love to see in the area, but if Baja Fresh couldn't make a go of it, I highly doubt Rubio's would be successful.

My inspiration for writing this up was a visit to Dorados in Brookline, MA.  Check back soon for a full write-up.

National interpretation: Rubio's (only in the southwest so far)
Best (only?) representation near Boston: Dorado Tacos & Cemitas
Tell-tale offering: Beer battered fish tacos
Special Note: Ironic that Baja Fresh isn't Baja-style.

Conclusions and Recommendations

My point in writing this up was to highlight subtle differences between restaurants in the broad Mexican food category and perhaps catch a few comments for restaurants to check out within each of these categories.

For as much enthusiasm as there is for the category in the Boston area, many national chains seem to fail when they attempt to expand here.  I don't know why that is exactly.  Is it that Bostonians don't like chains?  Or that the chains are poor implementations of the concept somehow?

Photo Credit: (drop me an E-mail if you'd like me to remove it)

Question of the Day: What do you think of the state of Mexican food in the Boston area?  Any gems you've discovered? 
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