El Norte: The Makings of a Mexican Food Industry in the Hudson Valley
The 1980s were a great time for Mexican cuisine—especially in the Hudson Valley. It was this decade, after all, that saw the Mexican community grow larger and faster than any other immigrant group in the nation. Towns like Poughkeepsie and Newburgh swelled as young men arrived to pick the valley’s apples and wash onions and lettuce grown in its black dirt fields—and the Mexican food followed shortly after. In Newburgh, several Mexican- owned grocery stores sprang up to quell the demand for authentic Mexican-made staples, like corn tortillas and spicy chiles redolent of the arid soils of the motherland. It was in these bodegas, with their teetering shelves piled high with the delights of Mexico, that Mexican-Americans were able to find a little taste of home, though thousands of miles away. What’s more, such pioneering businesses paved the way for the region’s now flourishing Mexican culinary scene and the crowds of gringos ready for freshly griddled picaditas.
In Newburgh, Los Portales’ port-wine-colored awning marks its place as one of about 10 Mexican restaurants now jostling for real estate in the city’s center. Once home to a small, predominantly Puerto Rican immigrant community, over half of Newburgh’s 29,000 residents are Mexican or Latino nowadays. Most are from the states of Jalisco and Puebla: The city is practically swimming in mole sauce. One satisfied customer at Los Portales, spooning the soft, yellow corn of a tamale into his mouth, elaborates on the city’s transformation: “In the ’80s there was nothing here. One ‘Tex-Mex’ (here he adds in the quotation marks—a snub to the Southwestern-born hybrid cuisine) place. First, a few groceries came to sell tortillas, now we can have real food.” And the tamales at Los Portales are the real deal: a recipe handed down from owner Bernadino’s mother, packed with a mixture of flavors from spicy to sweet. To get a taste of the tamales, head to the restaurant early in the day and enjoy in typical Puebla style—as breakfast.
The story of Mexican food and its lively diaspora heads upriver from here. Head north along the Hudson on Route 9 and discover the fabled city of “Oaxakeepsie.” Similar to Newburgh, the Poughkeepsie (the city’s actual Dutch given name) scene is a mixture of restored theaters, magnificent river views, clusters of restaurants up and down the spectrum of fabulous to simply edible and a fair amount of general urban squalor situated around Main Street. It’s this pairing of grit and elegance that gives the city its charm, and the Mexican portion of town—with residents hailing primarily from Oaxaca—is no exception. Departing from the more quaint environs of neighbors to the north and south (towns like Rhinebeck and Beacon), walk Poughkeepsie’s Mexican hub and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to another country altogether. Stop in at any of the small, family-owned restaurants here and the feeling will deepen: At El Bracero, vendors drift in and out selling lunchtime essentials like socks, while groups of Mexican construction workers arrive, ordering stews and combos decidedly not on the menu. But take heed—not all of what’s on offer at these places is good. There are, however, certain unmistakable authentic ingredients tying the food together that are good. Very good. And together these ingredients spin an elemental web up and down the valley, forming the backbone of this culinary community.
Take the gratis bowl of chips and salsa, offered at the beginning of every meal. The chips are flaky, fried triangles of corn tortillas— not the dry, flour-based imposters found in your average grocery store—and by and large they come from one of the valley’s tortilla factories. El Azteca grocery in Newburgh was a mainstay for small restaurateurs seeking authentic chips (which are actually handmade tortillas, cut up, tossed in a little salt and deep fried) until it burned down last year. Still, there’s Tortilleria Chinantla and Plaza Piaxtla further south in Brooklyn, a growing number of small specialty tortilla makers like La Milpa De Rosa in Yonkers scattered in and around the valley and Escondida, a giant factory that ships all over the country, based right in Newburgh: If authentic tortilla chips are what you crave, you’ve got options. The salsa, too, is a point of pride and distinction. At El Azteca (same name, different town from the unlucky tortilla shop mentioned above) on Poughkeepsie’s main street, the waitress checks to make sure customers are prepared for the housemade salsa. It’s picante, meaning, hot. You won’t find any of the sweet, saucy stuff we gringos have grown soft on here. Leaves of cilantro float in a tomato broth, concealing seeds of boiling hot peppers waiting to explode in the mouth (and get wedged in your teeth). There’s a smoked salsa, too, rendered from dried toasted chiles and pureed tomatillos, or a cactus-based version, made from the softened, baked and blended paddles of the prickly pear—perfect for slathering on an open taco or one of El Azteca’s hearty lunchtime tortas.
As these ingredients have slowly percolated further north, good restaurants and authentic fare have followed. Food like this doesn’t just cultivate community, it bonds it together like the alchemy of flour and water, merging to make the glutinous magic of risen bread. These Mexican communities have retained an integral part of their heritage through the making of mole, the stirring of pozole and, of course, the insistence on that bedrock of Mexican cuisine: corn-based tortillas. But someone has got to be on the leading edge, the far flung frontier of the diaspora, and that man might just be Martin Morales—owner of Mi Lupita, a grocery and restaurant in the Catskill Mountain town of Fleischmanns. In fact, the whole town, which is about 20% Mexican as of the last U.S. census in 2010, is decidedly an outlier when it comes to the data points that make up the pattern of Mexican migration in this region. This small Catskills town, once a retreat for wealthy city business owners, is now a sleepy hamlet with little over 350 people residing there year round. What’s more, it’s been known to snow in May in Fleischmanns (this is the Catskills, after all)—a stark contrast to the warm, cactusstudded state of Puebla. But start asking the Mexican residents of Fleischmanns why they came and it’ll all become clear in short order. Morales describes the hamlet as very community oriented and a safe place to raise children. He opened the store hoping to create a place for his family to work, and that sentiment wasn’t novel, either. In fact, Fleischmanns has three restaurants that sprang up to provide jobs to community members (and serve up cactus salads, pumpkin flower quesadillas and those irresistible corn tortilla chips to drooling customers). Owners of the other two Mexican joints in town, Sam’s and La Cabana, both echo Martin’s feelings that Fleischmanns is simply the place to be—it’s friendly, inviting, safe and somehow (despite the snow) it just feels like home.
Many of Fleischmann’s residents still have ties to that hub of Mexican culture, Newburgh. Whether their cousins live there, or they work at the tortilla factory, the two towns and their populations are undeniably economically and socially linked. These networks keep small communities like Fleischmanns well nourished, literally— Morales still goes to Newburgh frequently to pick up items for his restaurant, like fresh, crumbly Cotija cheese. Martin Morales himself moved to the Catskills in 2001, with dreams of opening his own restaurant and feeding the masses of summer tourists. He quickly discovered the problem with Fleischmanns, as with any touristdependent community, was that the summers were great for business, and the winters abominable. Selling Mexican chocolate bars, bunches of dried chiles and cooking up panfuls of camarones Costa Brava (a flavorful shrimp dish and one of Mi Lupita’s specialties that Martin recommends) for Mexican customers was making his family about $300 a week—not enough to get them through the long, desolate Catskill winters.
What Morales finally put his finger on was a need for a restaurant that fed both parts of the community—the Mexicans craving the flavors of home and the Americans not yet familiar with the taste of chiles and tomatillos. As Morales says himself, “95% of people around here are Americans. Only 5% are Mexicans. We have to figure out how to feed two communities to be successful. Tex-Mex is a good way to combine different tastes to suit Americans, but we also want to teach Americans what is real Mexican food, so they can enjoy those flavors, too.” Mi Lupita’s menu reflects this ideal, offering everything from the Mexico City classic tampiqueña (a thin strip of steak accompanied by cilantro, Mexican rice, beans and avocado) to the tried and true, well-loved beef burrito.
Both La Cabana and Sam’s fit this story of hybridization, too— how else would they survive in the Catskills’ mountainous, far-out environment if they didn’t? Sam’s, situated on a spruce-flanked corner of Fleischmanns, looks for all the world like a regular gas station—but there’s more than Twix and motor oil waiting inside. Sam Gil added the restaurant portion of the store to give his kids a place to work, and now its Mexican food is a lunchtime mainstay in the community, even though the kids come and go. The Garcias’ La Cabana used to operate as a hotel and now serves up a mixture of gringo-friendly fare, as well as providing summer dance parties where the music plays late into the night. This willingness to diversify and cater to all tastes looking for a seat at the table has earned the town a reputation as the go-to source for Mexican in the region —and a diehard customer base to boot, as Morales explains, with a dewy look in his eyes: “Customers come from as far away as Oneonta, Walton and (the town of) Catskill, and these are regular customers, coming all the time. I’m very proud to introduce them to what is real Mexican food.” Fortunately, with the Catskills’ booming small-farm industry and the robust network between Mexican culinary hotbeds like Newburgh and satellite towns like Fleischmanns, making those authentic dishes gets easier and easier, and the ingredients fresher and fresher. Mi Lupita buys local produce in the summertime whenever possible— like squash blossoms for its pumpkin flower quesadillas from Lucky Dog Organic Farm in Hamden. Come August, the farmers’ market abounds with ripe fruit perfect for the restaurant’s desserts, like honeydew melon and cantaloupe. Gone are the days of dependency on $3 guava and sad, fruitless searches for smoked anchos. The use of Catskills-grown fruit and vegetables in Mi Lupita’s cuisine is the perfect manifestation of the synergy between the Mexican community and the Catskills landscape—adding another layer to the rich tapestry that nourishes them both. Fleischmanns’ locals know they’ve got it good, with their own little treasure trove of delicious restaurants to save themselves from a bare pantry, or yet another evening out eating burgers. As one resident comments: “(Mi Lupita’s) pumpkin flower quesadilla is to die for, and we’re grateful to have such delicious authentic Mexican food, made by such deeply connected community members, here in the Catskills.”
So it’s not just about the food itself—it’s about community, connections and eating together. But the fact that Mi Lupita’s pumpkin flower quesadillas (quesadillas de flore de calabassa) are actually really, really good does help. Morales describes the ingredients in this signature dish with a smile and great gusto. “Start with a little bit of olive oil, hot fresh jalapeños, spread the flowers, sauté them with salt and pepper and shredded cheese. Open them and sprinkle with sour cream and more fresh cheese….” (I stop him here and order some). The result is a sizzling, slightly sweet, surprisingly-delicate-despite-the-cheese mouthful of utter satisfaction. But watch out: gringos or no, Martin makes the salsa as hot as he likes.
EL AZTECA MEXICAN DELI
97 Main Street, Poughkeepsie
LOS PORTALES RESTAURANT
295 Broadway, Newburgh
967 Main St, Fleischmanns