IT COULDN’T BE LESS PREPOSSESSING. In my zeal to find the holy grail of cash-poor restaurant reviewers, I found it in Schenectady (which makes sense), on a stretch of State Street in the city’s Woodlawn area.
|Photo by B. A. Nilsson|
But you know what’s coming. It’s listed on two menu pages. Fifteen items, most of them familiar, like nachos ($9), which include your choice of meat (beef, chicken, pork—carnitas or al pastor—chorizo or lengua—beef tongue) along with beans and sour cream and guacamole; burritos ($7), again with your choice of meat, served with rice and beans, guacamole and Mexican sour cream, which is a delicious form of crème fraîche; fajitas ($15), the classic sizzle-platter dish, and $2 tacos.
I was warned that the dining room can fill quickly, but our only accommodation challenge during a recent Saturday-afternoon visit was finding a place to park: The few spaces in front of the store were filled, so we risked the wrath of a nearby (but closed for the day) business by dumping the car there. But once we’d chosen a table and I had a bottle of Negra Modelo in hand, it was a matter of finding the right vehicle for chorizo.
Mexican chorizo is typically a fresh preparation of minced, seasoned pork, fatty and with a little bite. I opted for a comparatively naked version, in the $13 combo platter. Choose your meat (see above) and enjoy it with rice and beans, guacamole and crema and a stack of soft, warm tortillas with which to create a sandwich. I’ve sampled this style of chorizo at any number of similar restaurants; I’ve made my own. So I can say that there’s a distinctive hand at work here. It’s not overly spicy, but it boasts a blend of seasonings that probably reflects the chef’s style—the chef being Maria Sosa, who grew up near Guadalajara and cooks the food to order with a well-practiced hand. She and her husband, Everardo Sosa-Mendoza, opened La Mexicana, and it has the welcoming feel of a family business. Service is casual and is as affected by the number of patrons in the store as it is by restaurant customers, but we never had a sense of being neglected, even when (as we could spy from our table) a large to-go order was being handed over the grocery-store counter.
That combo platter was nothing fancy to look at; a spoonful of meat, ditto yellow rice, and a small portion of real (not Goya) refried beans, the beans topped with some crumbles of Oaxacan cheese. The guacamole was smooth, almost the consistency of the crema served beside it. A container of homemade salsa had been served with the tortilla crisps that started us off; my request for a hotter sauce got us a small serving of a fiery chipotle brew. Which gives a lot of latitude in building what are essentially soft tacos out of the ingredients, with a little more guacamole here, more hot sauce there. Meals can be more fun when they’re interactive.
Sosa’s fine pastry work was reflected in the sope we sampled ($2.50). Here your choice of meat (we went with al pastor, a barbecue-y contrast to the chorizo) is combined with beans and lettuce and Oaxacan cheese on a flaky, open-topped shell. We passed it around the table. I could have downed a few of them, but that says more about me than about what’s a good-sized serving.
Torn between the corn-tortilla-wrapped enchiladas ($11 for a plate of three) and a flour-tortilla quesadilla ($8), my wife went with the latter—chicken, of course—and enjoyed a serving that wasn’t smothered in cheese, gringo-style. There was flavor to the chicken, and texture to the tortilla, with a good-sized complement of salad greens.
A tostada is $3.50, and our serving, also with chicken, was topped with enough guacamole to make it a sensibly sized meal. Other available items are corn husk-wrapped tamales ($2.50 apiece), a torta, which is a meat-filled sandwich on a Portuguese roll ($5.50), flautas, which put a chicken-based filling into a fried flour tortilla ($11), chile rellenos (stuffed poblano peppers, $13) and a Mexican pizza called tlayuda ($11).
Desserts include torta de tres leches ($3.50), flan ($3.50) and rice pudding (arroz con leche, $2)—all homemade.
Beyond the thrill of discovering this place was the pleasure of enjoying an inexpensive, satisfying meal that accurately reflects a type of cuisine—and therefore a culture—that is more commonly found in such bastardized form that we live among people who take Taco Bell seriously. Thank goodness we don’t have to.
La Mexicana Grocery and Restaurant, 1759 State St., Schenectady, 346-1700. Serving 10 AM-8 PM daily. D, MC, V.
– Metroland Magazine, 3 April 2014