I hate driving past signs advertising New York pizza. With a couple of very rare exceptions, it's almost never any good, but people have this einredenish–this self-imposed delusion–that places advertising New York pizza will actually be able to produce the chewy, slightly sour crust, the tangy sauce, and even the cheese.
New Yorkers sneer at our penchant for trying to replicate their hometown pie, and we get our own back by sweetly pointing out that 99 percent of the so-called “Mexican” food available in New York City is complete and utter mierda, an unappetizing and lame attempt to replicate our birthright of tiny tacos, fat burritos, chiles rellenos, pozole and tamales.
While I was back East earlier this month, a friend of mine suggested dinner at Florencia 13, a “Southern Californian Mexican” restaurant near his work in Greenwich Village. I rolled my eyes, figured at least I'd get a good snarky article out of it, and away we went…
…except the snark never came. For once, New York seems to have a Mexican restaurant that got it (mostly) right. The secret? Owners from East Los Angeles who wanted to build a restaurant with the taste of home, and who then named it after a South Los Angeles street gang. (Why not?)
Chips–de rigueur in Mexican-American restaurants–were freshly-fried and very good, and the guacamole was damn near perfect, but the salsa was watery and tomatoey, like Chevy's. Eventually I gave up and asked for some hot sauce to liven it up a little, and was surprised to get a bottle of Valentina.
The menu starts off with a lot of salads, which is odd–you'll never see very many salads on a Mexican restaurant menu around here–but then continues into tacos both soft and crispy, enchiladas, two kinds of chile relleno, flautas, and then moves into “burritos locos” and the familiar old combination plates.
The al pastor tacos were really good. Obviously from a flat top grill and not a trompo, but still spicy and with just the right hit of pineapple on a tortilla that is indistinguishable from any other… but the San Gabriel chile relleno was a hit, with a great picadillo stuffed inside of a perfectly grilled and peeled chile poblano. Had it been doused with walnut cream and pomegranate seeds instead of queso Oaxaca and crema fresca, it could have been a good take on the national dish of Mexico, the chile en nogada.
There's a very good list of not-quite-mass-market tequilas, like Partida and Corralejo, and I asked for a paloma made with Corralejo reposado rather than whatever tequila blanco was on the list, and it came out done right; a later order of a michelada–a thing not very commonly found in New York–was spot-on.
Florencia 13 mostly reminds me of someplace like El Arco Iris, except twice the price. Tacos are a shocking $11 for three, which made my Angeleno eyes water and my wallet ache, and the cheapest dish is a $4 elote asado. Still, this is lower Manhattan, where paying the rent often feels like being bent over a table, and there's no putting a price on a craving.
Is this some Diana Kennedy, Patricia Quintana, alta cocina, templo de gastronomía? No. Is it an attempt to re-create the loncheras of East L.A.? No. Florencia 13 is a place for pocho comfort food, Chicano cuisine rather than Mexican, and while Florencia 13, like El Arco Iris, wouldn't be the best Mexican–or even the best Mexican-American–in Southern California, it's solid. The East Coast imitator can scratch that burrito or chile verde itch for expats from warm, sunny Califas.
Now, if only someone from New York would open a coal oven pizzeria or an appetizing store here in Orange County…
185 Sullivan St., New York; (212) 677-6830; florencia13nyc.com. On the A-C-E or B-D-F-M at West 4th St. or the 1 at Houston St.