La Mexicana Grocery and Restaurant, 1759 State St., Schenectady, 346-1700. Serving 10 AM-8 PM daily. D, MC, V.
Entrée price range: $2 (taco) to $15 (fajitas)
Ambiance: muy informal
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.
La Mexicana has been open since 2010 as a grocery store, with the restaurant added a year later. The grocery side is packed tight with foodstuffs from big guys like Goya and, more interestingly, many smaller producers, and there’s a hot sauce section that alone is worth a visit. The restaurant, in an adjoining building, is an almost charmless room with a scattering of tables, a bar, a big speaker system for entertainment nights and some colorful decorations (the peacocks are my favorites) relieving the monotony of the walls. Tables and chairs suggest a meeting room.
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.