As a Californian, I’ll be the first to admit it: my people can get pretty damn annoying when they start lamenting the state of Mexican food in New York.
“That’s not a real burrito,” they inform Jersey-born friends chomping down the Chipotle. “Where I grew up, there was this Mexican guy a few miles away, and he ran this little shop that was just a window and didn’t even have a sign out front and his daughters would grind the corn for the tortillas and his wife would slaughter the pigs in the back and then stew the pork all day and then pile that into a tortilla with fresh avocado from their avocado tree and a sprinkle of queso fresco and oh my God, that was a real burrito…”
Or something like that.
Originally from Northern California, I’ll confess to complaining about crunchy-shell tacos or the dearth of corn tortillas in East Coast supermarkets. Truth be told, New York doesn’t have the taqueria tradition that much of the West Coast does. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nowhere to find decent, down-and-dirty Mexican in Manhattan. You just have to look a bit. Case in point: the perplexingly named Downtown Bakery.
I’d probably walked by several dozen times before taking a peek through the door. On a bodega-heavy stretch of First Avenue, its nondescript blue awning and unadorned storefront don’t exactly scream “Come inside!” And even if I had read the sign, I wouldn’t have known what to expect. This no-frills Mexican joint could hardly have a less fitting name. It’s just a few blocks north of Houston, true, but it’s hardly a bakery. The only baked goods in sight are a couple of floppy-looking cinnamon buns and limp croissants.
But one look at the extensive menu inside tells all you need to know. Pollo en mole, chile rellenos, tortas de carne asada, pernil stew, and all manner of other Mexican specialties, with a few American concessions thrown in. And prices hardly break the $10 mark. Tortas range from $6 to $7, burritos from $6 to $9, and even entrée-sized platos of steak and chicken hover around $9.
And, to the point of this post, the breakfast menu earns an entire board of its own. Two-egg sandwiches come with cheese ($2), sausage ($3.50), or steak ($3.75); there are chicken and chorizo breakfast burritos ($6), egg- and potato-stuffed soft tacos ($5.50 for two), and jalapeño-studded huevos a la Mexicana ($7). The appetite-endowed (or the hungry and hungover) can hunker down with a pile of steak-topped chilaquiles ($9) or an egg-topped pile of rice, beans, and tortillas ($6). Downtown Bakery won’t leave you wanting for options. Or for more to fill your stomach.
Huevos rancheros ($7) were done simply and right: corn tortillas cooked in mildly spicy guajillo sauce, topped with sunny-side up eggs and served with a healthy scoop of black beans, sliced avocado, and cotija cheese. The barely-cooked yolks mingled beautifully with the falling-apart tortillas, the avocado was creamy and fresh, and the sprinkle of cotija cut through the spice. Erin and I both felt the dish could have used more salt, but that was corrected easily enough.
Also done well were the chorizo breakfast tacos ($6 for two), white-corn tortillas filled to overflowing with fatty sausage, scrambled eggs, black refried beans, and a healthy, melty layer of Monterey Jack. The generously-cut chorizo and gooey cheese went a long way towards disguising the slightly tough tortilla edges.
Still tasty, but less irresistible, were the tacos de papa. While the soft chunks of potato were cooked well and paired nicely with eggs, cheese, and beans—there just wasn’t a lot of flavor going on. A scoop of house hot sauce and a sprinkle of salt helped matters quite a bit.
By the time we headed out, thirteen bucks had gotten us two enormous plates of food, two surprisingly decent 75¢ coffees, and a tasty, protein-happy breakfast that kept me running all day. Downtown Bakery is hardly a culinary landmark. Nor does it serve the best tacos I’ve ever eaten. But it’s spicy, flavorful, fresh, competently made, and (in Manhattan terms) impressively cheap. And that’s what I’m looking for in my Mexican breakfasts.
69 First Avenue, New York NY 10003 (map)