Mexican Eats: Guelaguetza
In a borough that's not particularly know for it, Hell's Kitchen hosts a pocket of good and cheap Manhattan Mexican food. Bodegas with back-room kitchens serving respectable tacos and dot 10th Avenue and tiny take-out joints shuttle burritos to the doors of many. Guelaguetza, on 47th Street, is a fine emblem. A sliver of a grocery selling Mexican boxed goods, toilet paper, and pour-it-your-self coffee, there's a kitchen in back. The green awning outside reads La Rosita, but it's the husband and wife team behind Guelaguetza crafting satisfying versions of the classics.
Through the corridor, there's nice knitted tablecloths on the four small tables and the walls have been painted a bright yellow to diminish any forming claustrophobia. The owner's young daughter, Sara, usually occupies the back corner table for a better view of Yo Gabba Gabba! playing on a TV overhead. Deliverymen on breaks come in for plates of scrambled eggs with ham and rice and beans with warm tortillas on the side. Family members stop by for milanesa tortas and to tussle playfully with Sara.
There's cheap egg-on-a-roll breakfasts and $3 hamburgers but it's the Mexican food that rises above the tide of perfunctory deli-dishes. The tortas ($7), with layers of headcheese, ham, cotija cheese, avocado, and pickled jalapenos are decent. There are quesadillas and sopes made by hand (both $2.75), filled with ground beef picadillo, cheese, or mushrooms, drizzled with crema and piles of lettuce. Note the taco guelaguetza ($5.00) slipped onto the center of the menu. More commonly known as a taco placero or market taco, this dish from the historically poor regions of the Southern states of Mexico gathers scraps of rice, raw jalapenos, and hard-boiled eggs to heap them, dry, onto an oversized tortilla. I have yet to truly enjoy one.
Place your order at the window to the kitchen, where you can peek back and watch the proprietress stir pots of stewing beans and trim beef tongues. Whatever daily braise she's tending to is usually delicious. Recently it was a green chile stew of pork ribs and perfectly cooked nopales, with a pleasant crunch and no sign of slime. The tacos ($2.50) come double-tortilla'd, filled with salted beef cecina, al pastor, or chicken, and topped with cilantro and onion. They're ordinary, that is, unless you order the sangrita, a jumble of diced goat meat and onions, thickened with goat blood, a sort of loose blood sausage the color of a dark bruise. Heavy with clove, cinnamon, and a deep earthiness that only comes from eating life itself, it is both memorable and highly recommended.