Restaurants

“Chic-o” de Mayo: Celebrate Mexican Heritage in Style

May 5, 2014

Photo of Oyamel courtesy of yosoynuts on Flickr Creative Commons

GLOBAL – The fifth of May is an annual celebration of Mexican pride, commemorating as it does a Mexican victory over French forces back in 1862. In the US and Europe, the fiestas that mark Cinco de Mayo often tend to be of the kitschy kind, in which the only thing vaguely “Mexican” about the debauchery is that the beer is Corona or Tecate.

We’re all for kitsch, but at the same time we’ll take ours with a little authenticity−and class. Here are our favorite places to get our Cinco de Mayo on, with a dose of chic!

London
It might sound crazy to expect good Mexican food and drink in faraway, foggy London, but Crazy Homies in Notting Hill manages to pull it off. The funky restaurant-cum-club packs in the hipsters with riotously colorful Mexican décor including guitar-playing skeletons, haphazard altars of flowers and candles, and multihued wall art of painted skulls. The kitchen and bar carry out the Mexicana theme with an array of nachos, tacos, and enchiladas, as well as a killer selection of tequila and tropical cocktails. For serious revelry, head downstairs to the basement club Camucho’s Clubhouse, where the sound system pounds thumping Latin tunes.

Los Angeles
With its proximity to the border, Los Angeles is a Mexican food mecca, with all manner of regional cuisine represented. For Oaxacan fare, nothing beats Guelaguetza, a family-run restaurant in Koreatown popular with Mexican expats for its handcrafted moles in a rainbow of flavors and an enormous selection of mezcal and tequila. The restaurant is warm and brightly painted but absent the typical display of tacky knickknacks, although occasional mariachis lend a traditional touch.

On the other hand, El Carmen, a spirited Mexican-themed dive bar on 3rd Street, is a veritable explosion of kitsch, with walls plastered with Mexican wrestling posters and actual wrestling masks, as well as a giant bull’s head mounted on the ceiling. But it’s all in good taste, as are the delish margaritas and selection of 270+ varieties of tequila. Add in Mexican bar bites, a jamming jukebox, and a stylish crowd, and this is our idea of a chic fiesta.

New York City
The spicy accent of Mexican cuisine is one of our favorite flavors of the New York melting pot, and, increasingly, it’s delivered with an upscale slant. The gourmet take on Mexican classics and elegant architectural details (like a 30-foot blue tile “water wall” and a “floating” staircase) at Rosa Mexicano on the Upper West Side make this Mexican dining at its classiest. Don’t miss the legendary guacamole prepared tableside in lava-stone molcajetes or the potent, frozen pomegranate margaritas.

Covering similar swanky territory is Dos Caminos Soho, whose sleek interior is more trendy than kitschy (more “SoHo” than “south of the border”!). The grown-up cocktails (try their signature prickly pear margarita, por favor) and selection of 150+ tequilas keeps things festive, while highlights of the menu include pescado tacos and tableside guac.

Also in SoHo is La Esquina, a stylish three-in-one Mexican café, brasserie, and taqueria. The café and quick-service taqueria are comfy and casual, decked out with homey decor accents like vintage books and records. The subterranean brasserie, on the other hand, is a sultry, low-lit space, with weathered brick, candles, iron grates, and fashionable artsy types nursing margaritas. Just think of it as a south-of-the-border speakeasy!

Washington, DC
In the increasingly international food scene of the US capital, Mexican cuisine is a rising star. Spanish celeb chef José Andrés has jumped in the ring with Oyamel, a trendy joint in Penn Quarter that puts quality above kitsch. The bright, airy dining room is decked out with orange banquettes, pink walls, marigold “carpet” on the ceiling, and delicate butterfly mobiles overhead−without a whiff of tackiness. The kitchen keeps things modern yet authentic with succulent short ribs, fresh ceviches, and inventive, fruity cocktails.

Funky U Street has its own hip entry with Richard Sandoval’s El Centro D.F., a restaurant/lounge broken into three distinct spaces. Downstairs, couples congregate in the romantic underground tequileria, an urban-chic space with polished concrete and distressed wood décor accents that features 200+ tequilas from which to choose. The laidback ground floor taqueria is all about the almighty taco, enjoyed by groups of friends at casual counter seating. On the roof terrace, two open-air bars offer a menu of light bites plus Latin-inspired cocktails.

Even more edgy is the H Street Country Club, a buzzing “barcade” that pulls in the H Street hipsters with board games, skeeball, shuffleboard, and Xbox Kinect. But the kitchen is all about Mexico, with everything from bar bites like nachos and quesadillas to heartier plates like fajitas and enchilada. Of course, the highlight (at least from the standpoint of the boozy groups of arcade-goers) is the pitchers of margaritas shared among friends. And yes, the bar serves both Corona and Tecate. This is as close as we get to a Cinco de Mayo fueled primarily by cerveza!

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