Column: Cal-Mex is having a moment in New York. But how does it taste?

Los Tacos No. 1 in Times Square
Customers line up at Los Tacos No. 1 in New York’s Times Square. The chain has found success emulating Tijuana-style taquerías.
(Gustavo Arellano/Los Angeles Times)

When I’m in New York, the thing I love to do more than anything is eat.

Slabs of roast pork, skin as brittle and sweet as toffee and bathed in vinegar garlic sauce at Dominican spots in Washington Heights. Cheesy, cheap pizza slices in Midtown Manhattan. West African buffets. Katz’s Deli. Bodega-bought chopped cheese sandwiches. Who needs the Guggenheim when there are street vendors from nearly every continent except Antarctica around Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights?

One thing I don’t look for? Mexican food.

There are a lot of wonderful spots across the Big Apple, from fine dining to storefronts specializing in the dishes of Puebla and Hidalgo, Mexican states that have sent immigrants to New York for decades. But when I’m in the city, I’m hungry for cuisines that aren’t that common in Southern California (Haitian, Russian, Uruguayan) or are simply better back East (halal carts, Irish pubs, Nepalese dumplings). Besides, I live in Orange County, which has great Mexican food and is two hours north of the border and an hour south of Los Angeles. Going out for Mexican in New York would be like swimming in the ocean when my parents’ house already has a pool.

So my friends found it odd when I told them that I was going to explore New York’s Cal-Mex scene during a visit last month.


We tallied a list with scores of classic Mexican restaurants across the region. Here are our top picks.

Sept. 15, 2022

For about the past 40 years, Californians nostalgic for their home state’s take on Mexican food — especially burritos, chile verde and colorado, and taco trucks — have tried to replicate what they’re missing in New York, to middling results. Right now, however, the metropolis is having a Cal-Mex moment.

Birria de res — stewed beef — is on menus across town after it truly hit Southern California last decade. Chefs are eschewing factory-made corn and flour tortillas in favor of handmade, mirroring a nationwide trend we also kicked off. New York, like Los Angeles, has become a de facto suburb for Mexico City’s hip set, with culinary ideas flowing among the three cities.

What interested me more this time were restaurants that not only wanted to make the Mexican meals Californians like, but to also mimic the aesthetics of eateries that sell it. Are expat Californians that desperate for home and New Yorkers that interested in the foodways of a state they otherwise dismiss as a cultural backwater?

It seems the answer to both is .

Super Burrito in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
A greasy al pastor burrito at Super Burrito in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The restaurant seeks to mimic the Mission burritos of San Francisco
(Gustavo Arellano/Los Angeles Times)

The first place I visited was Super Burrito in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Owner Eugene Cleghorn, a San Francisco native, opened the original location in Rockaway Beach in Queens in 2020 with a Frisco friend. They claimed they couldn’t find a good Mission-style burrito — the foil-wrapped edible bricks that the Chipotle chain made nationally famous and that originated in San Francisco’s historic Latino quarter.

I took the L train from Manhattan and found ersatz Cal-Mex the moment I got off at Bedford Avenue. There’s an outpost of Dos Toros, an OK burrito chain started by two brothers from Berkeley in 2009, for the same reasons Cleghorn cited, that now has locations across New York and in Washington, D.C. A few blocks away is Border Burrito, whose awning advertises “California Style Mexican Food” when the menu is more Tex-Mex — fajitas, nachos and something called Chicken Arizona.


Super Burrito is a street over, and I was initially impressed by its attempt to conjure up San Francisco. Its color scheme is orange and black, like the Giants. Laminated tables seem plucked out of a Mission District taquería. A poster of the Golden Gate Bridge at night hangs from a wall. There’s even a first aid poster featuring Dodgers great Clayton Kershaw as the choking victim who needs help — because you can’t have San Francisco without a weak-salsa jab at L.A., I guess.

A first aid poster featuring Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw as a choking victim
A first aid poster featuring Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw as a choking victim is part of the decor at Super Burrito in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which seeks to project a San Francisco vibe.
(Gustavo Arellano/Los Angeles Times)

The fantasy didn’t hold up, though. The clientele was mostly hipsters, and there weren’t many of them. A traditional Mission-style burrito shop allows eaters to customize their order from a galaxy of ingredients beyond beans, rice and meat. At Super Burrito, sour cream, poblano peppers and avocados were it, and cost extra. My al pastor burrito had as many pineapple chunks as an upside down cake and was so greasy I could only stomach half of it. Why did an eatery that claims to rep the City by the Bay in the City That Never Sleeps offer the French fry-stuffed burritos of San Diego, the smothered burritos of New Mexico and queso from Austin?

In the end, Super Burrito was about as San Fran as Tommy Lasorda.

The bright lights of New York City beckon to the restless and the hungry.

April 1, 2019

My next stop was Los Tacos No. 1 in Times Square. Friends from New York who know what great Cal-Mex is and have rolled their eyes at the wave of NYC pretenders over the years have long raved about the chain, started by friends from Brawley and Tijuana who missed the look and feel of borderland taquerías. A line poked out the front door when I arrived around 3 in the afternoon. Stanchions placed outside suggested it would grow only longer.

Los Tacos No. 1 did a good job of simulating Tijuana-style taquerías. People leaned on white-tiled counters while noshing on their tacos. An ice-filled cooler near the entrance contained bottles of soda. Workers yelled above the din in various accents of Spanish. Norteñas blared. The sparse menu — four meats served as tacos, quesadillas, tostadas and mulitas — was painted on the wall.

But I didn’t think of the border metropolis while I scarfed down yummy tacos de pollo asado and carne asada, wrapped in butcher paper as if they were a flower bouquet. I thought of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which is playing across 43rd Street at the Lyric Theater. Los Tacos No. 1 was the Broadway version of Cal-Mex — enjoyable and well made, sure, but too elaborate of a production. Perfect for newbies, ultimately soulless for those of us who know better.

Tacos of charbroiled chicken and carne asada at Los Tacos No. 1 in Times Square
(Gustavo Arellano/Los Angeles Times)

When I returned to California, I hit up my friend Steven Alvarez, with whom I had enjoyed a delicious, fancy Mexican dinner on my trip. He’s an English professor at St. John’s University who teaches “taco literacy” — the idea that eaters can decipher Mexican cuisine by investigating the stories behind each ingredient and the people making it.

“A lot of California folks come here to visit or live, and California sets their mexpectations,” he jokingly texted at first. The Arizona native was more forgiving about Cal-Mex in New York than I was.

“Folks bring a sense of home when they come here, to make home here, and making that belonging happen through food is pivotal for comfort,” Alvarez said.

True. But we in Southern California rightfully ridicule New Yorkers who come to L.A., call our corner stores “bodegas” and declare they can’t find any good bagels. It’s ridiculous when Americans go to another part of the country and declare that the food there is not only beneath them but also worthy of being replaced. And it’s just sad when locals buy the bull that the usurpers sling.

It could’ve been worse in Gotham, I guess. New York City doesn’t have any In-N-Outs ... yet.