Julian Medina has been in the restaurant business in NYC for 20 years, and each year he’s noticed that Cinco de Mayo only gets more popular.
And it’s not just celebrations of the day — which marks Mexico’s victory against the French at the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862 — that are on the rise. Since opening his first NYC restaurant Toloache in 2007, the chef has added roughly one eatery a year.
His eighth and latest with the Toloache Restaurant Group — a second outpost of the Mexican cantina Tacuba, named after his Mexico City hometown — opened last month in Hell’s Kitchen.
Beyond Toloache, other chefs with growing Mexican restaurant empires in NYC include Alex Stupak of Empellon, Mario Hernandez (Jorge Guzman Hospitality), Richard Sandoval and, the newest of the bunch, Enrique Olvera, who is planning a second, more casual restaurant here a year and a half after opening critical darling Cosme.
We spoke with Medina about his new restaurant, the city’s hunger for Mexican food and how to best celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
What’s different about the new location of Tacuba?
The second location has some touches from the Astoria store, but I changed the menu almost completely because the menu I created for Astoria was more for that type of neighborhood, for something more laid-back and friendly. Here I came up with more elaborate dishes, something for Hell’s Kitchen. You have a lot of competition here in Hell’s Kitchen with a lot of Mexican restaurants opening, so I thought that we should change the menu.
What are some of the newer items?
I made an octopus tostada with chipotle butter. I made a burrata with zucchini flower quesadilla. I came up with Icelandic cod with an Oaxaca chile sauce and spring vegetables. There are no main courses, everything is to share. I also have some big carnitas that come with tortillas on the side so you can make your own tacos — that’s popular. I also came up with some duck confit enchiladas and a cracked plate lobster spiced with chile de arbol. The octopus and chorizo tacos are very popular.
Why do you think people have responded so well to your restaurants?
These days it’s tough competition for Mexican restaurants. Back in the day, there weren’t too many. I guess with all these years of experience, and the authenticity of the places that we do, I think it was at the right time at the right moment. We really wanted to focus on the service and be prepared. We wanted to be in a neighborhood that is for the neighborhood people. People can enjoy the restaurant as well as the service and margaritas.
When you say authenticity, what speaks to that?
We press our tortillas every day in each location so we have fresh warm tortillas every day. That makes it authentic. Things like that — a little attention to detail makes it more authentic. I always keep trying to do a few dishes that are very authentic. For example, I made a black truffle quesadilla with Mexican cheeses — something like that that is nothing too far from tradition and it’s delicious. It’s one of my signature dishes that I’ve been making before I opened my very first place. I make it at the Toloaches.
How do you mark Cinco de Mayo at your restaurants?
We always like to have fun. We have mariachis. I make a special menu, it’s more driven with cocktails, margaritas and shots, and also with food. People like to go out on Cinco de Mayo. I see through the years, more like to have a good time, to drink. Americans just love to celebrate the holiday. Cinco de Mayo is a holiday in Mexico, but it’s not like the banks are closed, not like our Independence Day. Everybody knows it but nobody pays attention to it. The people from Puebla who moved to New York started making the holiday bigger, I think that’s where the holiday started to become bigger and bigger. And marketing these days, all these things. Big companies started pushing it, and all the Mexican restaurants started celebrating it. It’s fun, I love the holiday. It’s actually I would say the best day of the year for us, I would say for all the Mexican restaurants, in terms of sales. I’ve been here 20 years, and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger every year.
What are good dishes to mark the occasion?
For me, personally, a good taco is always good. [At Tacuba] I’m going to do a tostada ceviche with fluke, clams and sea urchin, with avocado and salsa Mexicana and I’m going to make some dry-aged rib eye tacos with an onion salad and fresh roasted tomatoes salsa. I’m focusing more on tacos and tostadas — something nice and light. With margaritas — more people like to drink than eat.
What about this day reminds you most of Mexico City?
I think the mariachis remind me of it. I always hire the same band [Mariachi Reyes].