By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
It doesn't intrigue me that much when people report excitedly on new Mexican restaurant finds that have great red or green salsa. Sure I love the stuff, but great Mexican tomato/tomatillo salsas don't depend on the kind of precision, balance, timing, and educated know-how that a great French sauce does; if all the veggies are fresh and the tomatoes are vine-ripe, you've already got a natural perfection that only a too-heavy hand with the spices can ruin.
The crucial question for me is: Does the joint make its own tortillas? Since I was raised in New Jersey in an era when taco shells were industrially produced, hard cornmeal disks and burritos were enclosed in wheat-flour tortillas that tasted as though they'd been cut from cardboard cartons, my first genuine taco -- from a Tijuana street stand whose proprietor fashioned a fresh tortilla from homemade masa harina dough and griddle-cooked it soft, not deep-fried it hard and greasy, to enclose quick-grilled beef strips -- was a revelation.
At Mario and Karina Manzanero's Burritos Grill Café, size and décor are not impressive; with just a lunch counter plus a few tables, the space is barely bigger than that south-of-the-border street stand, and the menu is only about a dozen items. But the limited selection is deliberate, to ensure that everything's fresh at this mom 'n' pop shop, including the made-from-scratch tortillas. The soft corn tortillas, featured in tacos enclosing either Yucatan-style stewed cochinita pibil (with big pork chunks; $6.49 for three), cilantro/vinegar-marinated pickled beef al pastor ($5.99 for three), or juicy grilled beef or chicken ($5.50 for two), are merely marvelous. Fittingly, the flour tortillas that wrap the grill's namesake burritos are unbelievably wonderful, so tender and delicate they're almost crêpelike despite being sturdy enough to enclose, without tearing, substantial heaps of rice, beans, lettuce, and salsa plus either queso fresca or Yucatan pork with pickled red onion (respectively the Gran Burrito or Burrito Maya, both $6.99).
The same fabulous flour tortillas come folded around six types of quesadillas, basic cheese for $5.50 or supplemented with various meat or veggie combinations for $6.50.
Those accustomed to Cuban tamales will find the café's Mexican models quite different; instead of incorporating dots of meat in the cornmeal masa, the rustic dough is wrapped around a stuffing of pork. Also unusual -- or at least unusual to find in a fast-food setting -- was a special of chicken enchilada mole. The earthy bay-spiced bitter chocolate sauce was complex enough for a dish twice its $9.99 price.
Almost all dishes come with yellow rice dotted with green pepper and fresh corn kernels, silky-smooth refried beans, homemade corn chips, and a tasty, fresh hot tomato salsa. If what you order does not also come with the homemade green tomatillo/cilantro salsa, though, beg, borrow, or steal some. This simple but ultrarefreshing lime-spiked stuff is salsa even sophisticates can get excited about.