Sunday, February 23, 2014

La Mexicana Grocery & Restaurant

Between all the buzz around Lettucegate and the Times Union review, how could we not check out La Mexicana Grocery & Restaurant. Lettuce aside, what was really on our radar were the beef tongue tacos. J has become a pretty adventurous eater with recent introductions to chicken livers, pigs feet, and balut. I on the other hand am no stranger to offals; it's always been part of my culture growing up and it's fun sharing these experiences with J now. 

For the most part, a lot of our Mexican dining experiences take place at the family restaurant at Leon's up in Saratoga Springs. But not all Mexican dishes are made the same so our lunch trip didn't quite seem like we were cheating on Leon's. Don't expect a fine dining experience at La Mexicana; it's a run-of-the-mill joint in appearance but with down-home authentic Mexican flavors. The menu is small and simple and remarkably affordable. How can you pass up on $2 tacos?! At such a steal, J and I decided to go for a flight of six tacos--one of each kind--with a pork tamale for good measure (another steal at $2.50) accompanied by a glass each of horchata and tamarindo agua fresca (also $2 each!). Horchata is a specialty drink made with rice, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla; think iced chai latte. Tamarindo is made with tamarind (a pod-like fruit also used in Asian cuisine and a very familiar flavor to me). This light, refreshing sweet and sour drink was the perfect accompaniment to our tacos. I'd come back just to have a gallon of this stuff. 

Our first bites were complimentary chips and salsa. Out of season and pale tomatoes were the makes of a very sad and underwhelming salsa but light and crispy tortillas, served warm, held us over til our orders were ready. FUSSYlitleBLOG, we're happy to report that tacos are indeed served with just cilantro and onions (with slices of radish on the side). The only lettuce in sight was shredded on a tamale served separately with no chance of spillage onto our tacos. Not to beat a dead horse, but for the record, there was absolutely no lettuce on our tacos! This allowed each meat to shine. A squeeze of lime and a dash of green tomatillo sauce (or red if you prefer) brought just enough zing to each bite. For its small price tag, these palm-sized tacos were generously filled with meat, and easily polished-off in a few bites. 

While the steak, chicken, and pulled pork carnitas were on the drier side, all the meats were flavorful enough. The chicken could have used some salt and was our least favorite but the stars of the bunch were most definitely the chorizo, al pastor, and lengua. While some chorizo can be super greasy and way too salty, Mexicana's version was just the right balance of spicy, rich flavors and not dripping with grease. The same could be said of the seasoned al pastor pork tacos; fatty bits of seared pork were seasoned with just enough spice to pack a punch of flavor. I was honestly expecting the beef tongue (lengua) meat to be super chewy and dry but much to my surprise, the meat was even more tender than the steak and just as flavorful if not more! It had just enough springy chew and toothy bite; the texture really isn't as off-putting as you might think. This lengua taco is something worth coming back for with a tall glass of tamarindo to wash it down with. I also can't mention how good these tacos were without the corn tortillas. Corn tortillas bring so much more flavor than flour ones and these warm, supple shells were the perfect canvas for these meats. 

I'm a sucker for tamales, even the frozen Trader Joe's ones. You can opt for chicken or pork ones at La Mexicana's. Each comes with shredded lettuce and a drizzle of crema. My first bite of tamale was unfortunately of dry masa from an end part but got better with every bite. The pork filling isn't as generous as the tacos and a bit dry, but tasty enough. Some extra green tomatillo sauce helped add moisture. That green sauce is some pretty magical stuff and I wish we had had some of that instead of the bland salsa in the beginning. 

A new addition since its TU review, La Mexicana has since added a bar with an array of bottled beers and Michelada now on the menu. And for the newbies looking to give La Mexicana a go for the first time, checkout is across the restaurant on the grocery side of the building. We sat around for a good 10 to15 minutes waiting for our check until we flagged down our waitress to ask where to pay; she doubled as the grocery cashier. It just comes to show you that some of the best foods are just simple, authentic bites from the most unassuming places. Checkout at the grocery end is also the perfect opportunity to pick up Mexican treats to bring home, like spicy tamarind candy!

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