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Two Fancy Mexicans

June 12, 2014

Why did I start this blog? There are a handful of reasons. But there is one in particular that I would like to recall today.

When I first moved to Albany, I was beating the streets looking for good food and kissing a fair number of frogs. At that time Yelp wasn’t terribly developed in the region, so I was doing my best to chronicle those eating escapades on that platform. My transition to the area was difficult, and my hope was that by writing all of these reviews, I might improve the lives of others who moved to the 518 from any major metropolitan area.

However, in doing so I found that Yelp had its limits. For example, in good faith I couldn’t review a restaurant in which I would never set foot.

And there are plenty of restaurants like that. Reading menus online, it is possible to get a very good sense of a place’s approach to food and how much the chef or owner thinks it is worth. Not that the food will be bad per se, but just that I can’t justify paying the premium for the dishes as described. There was one early piece where I demonstrated this with a direct comparison of two Italian restaurants.

Today, I want to pick up that old thread in advance of Mexican Radio opening on Monday.

Mexican food is amazing, and I’m happy to pay for upscale versions of the cuisine. For example, I once went to Maya in NYC and loved their roasted corn soup with huitlacoche dumplings. What I’m not going to do is pay $17 for a burrito. Especially, when as far as I can tell, there is nothing to justify that markup.

There was a special occasion Mexican restaurant in Oakland that I went to a few times when I lived out west. It’s called Doña Tomás. And while the menus of Mexican Radio and Doña Tomás are similar in some ways, it’s the small differences that matter the most. See for yourself.

Cheesy Appetizer Battle

Place A
Fundido de Chorizo y Papas 11.00
Potatoes and chorizo under toasty melted cheese, served with handmade corn tortillas.

Place B
Mexican Mac ‘n Cheese 10.00
Chock full of grilled corn, roasted jalapeño, poblano and sweet red peppers, Muenster cheese, cream and spices.

Salad Battle

Place A
Ensalada de César 8.00
Classic Mexican caesar salad ~ romaine, lemon, garlic, anchovy, parmesan cheese, croutons.

Place B
Caesar 10.00
Originating in Mexico, a creamy combo of queso añejo, fresh lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil. (We do not use any eggs or anchovies.)

Fish Taco Battle

Place A
Tacos de Pescado 18.00
Handmade corn tortillas with sautéed steelhead trout and mango salsa, served with frijoles negros.

Place B
Baja Fish Tacos 18.00
Three soft corn tortillas stuffed with sweet, batter-fried Tilapia, shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, guacamole, Baja crema and spicy arbol salsa, served with a choice of rice & beans or a side salad.

Big Plate Battle

Place A
Carnitas 19.00
Slow-roasted and tender pork shoulder rubbed with Mexican oregano served with rice, mashed pinto beans, grilled scallions, pico de gallo and handmade corn tortillas.

Place B
Carnitas 18.00
Shredded pork slow-cooked in a citrus blend of oranges, limes, garlic, and a smoky pepper salsa, served with a choice of rice & beans or a side salad.

Do you see what I mean? They are pretty similar on the face of things. One just feels a little more refined than the other. One offers better components in its dishes. Some might suggest that the difference is merely menu writing, but take a closer look. It goes deeper.

But the big difference is that one of these uses sustainably raised beef, pork and chicken and is committed to local and organic produce. They have to be. They are in the San Francisco Bay Area and this is virtually required for restaurants operating at a certain level.

The other features an interesting statement about their commitment to local foods:

Great pride goes into what we put on the table. Though we’d be hard pressed to find local avocados, we do our best to source locally for our ingredients where we can. As ardent local farm to table activists, Mexican Radio is proud to share local, delicious farm products with our customers whenever possible. This menu features local bounty from: Beth’s Farm Kitchen, Chatham Brewery, Coach Farm, Feather Ridge Farm, Harvest Spirits, Holmquest Farm, Hudson-Chatham Winery, Hudson Valley Fresh, Strongtree Coffee and Zehr’s & Sons. We even go as far as to grow some of it ourselves.

These are great producers, and it looks like a long list, but it’s bolstered by beer, booze, wine and coffee. Sure, it’s great that they are getting local salsa, cheese, eggs, tomatillos, milk and mushrooms too. But on the subject of meat, it is eerily silent. I know that the owners claim to be true believers in farm-to-table and that they have been active in building relationships with farmers. But their menu doesn’t go far enough considering what they are charging for their food.

I would love to find out that I’m wrong and that Mexican Radio sources ethically raised meat for their beef, chicken and pork. And I’d love to find out that their seafood is sustainably sourced (especially their shrimp with the current allegations of slave labor in Thai shrimp farms). Perhaps they are hand making their corn tortillas and just neglected to mention that fact on their menu or website.

If these are true, I’ll gladly take back all of my consternation and visit the restaurant to try their food with an open mind.

Are you ready for the kicker? Even in Oakland, and using high quality ingredients and time intensive cooking techniques, people find Doña Tomás to be a bit expensive for what it is. Now, given that Mexican Radio doesn’t even seem to hit that standard of quality and is opening up a 25,000 square foot restaurant in economically shaky Schenectady, I have doubts about their longevity in this market.

That said, the people of the Capital Region have proven time and time again that they are willing to keep shelling out big bucks for decent tasting food that isn’t too adventurous or authentic. So maybe Mexican Radio will do gangbusters.

It kills me to think that their success would be a further indictment of our region’s food culture.

You’ll find me drowning my sorrows in two-dollar lengua tacos down the road at La Mexicana. I don’t need margaritas since I’ve got to drive out to Schenectady anyhow. Just give me plenty of pork fat in the form of a carnitas torta with extra jalapenos and a horchata to wash it down.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2014 10:01 am

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. You mentioned in the ABOUT page that you started this blog to help people appreciate and care about really good food. How do you define that? And, how do you measure success or progresses toward that goal? I am just starting a new blog – thezenchef.net – and am trying to be very intentional about keeping my goals for it in view. Would love to hear your thoughts about this more specifically.
    Best,
    The Zen Chef

  2. EllieB permalink
    June 12, 2014 10:18 am

    We usually agree on most things food related, so it pains me to write this comment.

    Sure, Mexican Radio is new to the Capital District. But it isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination. There’s been one in Hudson for at least ten years and one in Manhattan. They pretty much have the same menu with small differences. Prices are nearly the same, or where last I ate in the Manhattan location.

    Is it a little pricey? Sure, but it’s not outside the price range of Jose Malones which I consider one of the better Mexican restaurants in the region. Ok, it’s not 100% authentic but it’s got a fun and innovative menu. Their salsa isn’t my favorite, but I’m willing to forgive and forget once my entree arrives.

    I know you are on sabbatical and can’t check out the older Mexican Radio locations. However criticizing something you could have tried but never did is a little concerning. People are stoked about the opening because we know how good it is, we just don’t have to drive to Hudson for it now.

    • June 12, 2014 10:39 am

      Don’t feel pained. I appreciate dissent. It allows me to clarify points and make a more compelling argument.

      I’ve been by the Mexican Radio in Hudson. My intent had been to stop in for a bite. But after looking at their menu and seeing the food that was served to patrons, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Granted, having lived on the west coast for over a decade it’s fair to say I have higher expectations for Mexican food. This is why I have no love for Jose Malones either.

      One of my biggest issues is the disparity between how a place presents itself and the food that they put on the plate. And I can call these places to task without trying their food. I’m not saying that it isn’t delicious. It very well may be, but fat and salt can make pretty much anything delicious. My bar is set higher than that, and I haven’t seen anything from Mexican Radio that makes their menu look remotely appealing.

      • DEN permalink
        June 12, 2014 1:54 pm

        I think EllieB makes an interesting point about the Manhattan Mexican Radio. The prices are exactly the same on the menu at the for Schenectady and Manhattan. Mexican Radio seems to have been relatively successful in NoLita (or whatever neighborhood that’s called these days) and they are not charging any more for the experience (assuming even quality) than they are in Manhattan. If a restaurant like that succeeds in Schenectady, is that really an indictment of the Capital Region food scene? Probably not, unless it starts being exalted as on par with better restaurants elsewhere. Mexican Radio in NYC appears to be a decently ranked restaurant, though a few notches below the top ranked spots.

        I think there might be a more nuanced critique to be made after you visit Mexican Radio. Looking at the pictures of Mex Radio and Dona Tomas on Yelp, it is clear that the food is presented in two totally different styles. It might just be that people in the Northeast never got to learn what authentic Mexican food is really about and that has affected our vision of what to expect from a good Mexican place.

        As an aside, I agree that Maya is a fine Mexican restaurant. It has been some years since I ate there, but I am glad you refreshed my memory of the good experience I had there. Interstetingly, Maya only ranks slightly better than Mexican Radio’s NYC spot on both Zagat and Yelp. I think the gap is a little larger, but Mexican seems to trend lower (top Zagat Mexican is rated a 26). Maybe there is a problem with finding good Mexican food in NYC, too!

  3. June 12, 2014 10:28 am

    I’m here to answer the corn tortilla question (just ate there in Hudson with Kater) – not homemade. I asked. They do fry them to order for their crunchy shell tacos.

    I’m with you on the ethical meat!

  4. June 12, 2014 10:54 am

    I agree that Mexican Radio is, along with Jose Malone’s, the most expensive Mexican food in the area. But if you’re going to spend 1,100-plus words making your case for refusing to go simply on principle, why wouldn’t you at least try to get an answer to your question about the meats they use? There’s no indication you did more than check the restaurant’s website. If you’re willing to devote what had to be a minimum of an hour writing this post, why not actually contact the restaurant instead of simply reading the menu online?

    You say, “I would love to find out that I’m wrong and that Mexican Radio sources ethically raised meat for their beef, chicken and pork.” So why not try to find out? Pick up the phone. Send an email. Even during the mania of opening a new restaurant, Lori Selden is extremely responsive to questions. Given the size of your audience, I’d think you would feel an obligation to ask the question directly. Even if you don’t believe it’s a necessary or at least fair thing to do, your argument would be stronger if you’d bothered asked the question.

  5. June 12, 2014 11:13 am

    My family has a house in Columbia County, so we went to the Mexican Radio several times what feels like eons ago. And then I remembered it as the expensive place, but it was also consistently good when Hudson was still in its more “up and coming” phase than it is now and choosing a restaurant that would be amenable to several people, and wasn’t over the top fussy or scary was difficult. Or maybe my memory is cloudy, who knows.

    I think the bigger picture here, is that it might be choosing to expand to the wrong crowd by opening in Schenectady. Manhattan, sure they can charge a lot and find a crowd; everything is expensive in NYC for the most part. Hudson, has become increasingly a town that caters to the weekenders coming up from NYC. Schenectady, while certainly accessible to a similar crowd, doesn’t immediately appear to be in the same vein. With that thought, Proctors can attract a crowd, and that crowd gets hungry and will consider it a special night out. That crowd can most certainly fill the giant space that is the Mexican Radio.

    But once the newness wears off, and in between those proctors crowds, its anyone’s guess how well the place will do. I’m sure I’ll stop in, I remember liking their Sangria (but really I can make that at home and skip the drive) but personally I’m not keen on the trek to Schenectady as it is.

  6. June 12, 2014 7:50 pm

    My long lost friend! You’re leaving out the dynamic of supply and demand!! I know there isn’t the abundance of amazing Mexican restaurants in New York’s Ozarks where you are now like there was in the Bay Area. Heck, you don’t even have a Mystery Spot!!!

  7. Sarah permalink
    June 13, 2014 10:50 am

    My mother grew up in Tucson and makes pretty good Mexican food, to the point that I really hate eating at El Loco, El Mariachi, Jose Malones, and most (all?) other Capital Region “Mexican” joints. I basically refuse to go to them. While I agree that Mexican Radio is a bit overpriced, and is not perfect, I think you’re being a bit harsh here, particularly considering you’ve never eaten there. I am also a menu snob–one of my dreams is to figure out a way to make money telling restaurants in which ways their menus do not make sense–but I think what you’re missing by not eating at Mexican Radio and judging by their menu alone is that the MR vibe is not that of traditional Mexican (or tex-mex) cuisine. That’s not to say that they don’t have traditional dishes, but it is much more a fusion of New American/Mexican, at least if you’re ordering vegetarian (I do), than you might expect. I think that is the difference between MR and a place like El Loco, and why I’ve enjoyed many a good (maybe not great) meal at MR. They don’t use sour mix in their margaritas; their Mexican summer rolls are amazing; and they do a decent chimichanga (with fresh local and seasonal produce–again, not traditional Mexican).

    I’m all for your mission of making the Capital Region food scene better, but picking on a place like Mexican Radio–particularly when you haven’t even been there–is not going to accomplish that. MR may not be the authentic Mexican place of your dreams, but it’s good at what it does and not comparatively overpriced for its ambience and food quality–at least in Hudson. I basically think of it as the New American/Mexican version of New World Bistro, a place that I think is highly overrated (and overpriced) but still does some interesting things and encourages a different way of thinking about the local dining scene. We’re not going to get to a great local food scene without some middle-ground pioneers leading the way, and that’s what NWB and MR are. If you want to pick on a Mexican place for being subpar and overpriced, there are plenty of others to choose from.

    • June 13, 2014 11:13 am

      Thank you for this. You make a compelling case, and have given me some good stuff to think about. What I struggle with is Mex Rad not living up to their own ideals. Let’s leave the insulting price of their burritos behind and focus on the $8 ear of roasted corn.

      For a place that cares about fresh and local ingredients, something like this should only be on the menu during the summer. Because an ear or organic/biodynamic corn that’s picked that morning and is husked, roasted and seasoned to order is totally worth it. But I feel badly for anyone who might order it in March. Even if you are getting fresh corn from the southern hemisphere, it degrades in transit.

      That said, I think the point you made about this not thinking of this as a Mexican restaurant and rather a global one expressed on a Mexican palate, might get me past the reluctance I expressed of walking through their door.

    • DEN permalink
      June 17, 2014 8:39 pm

      Well said, Sarah.

  8. Shortbus permalink
    June 16, 2014 10:02 pm

    You sir are a douche

    • Colonel Ball Head permalink
      June 17, 2014 11:11 pm

      I’m back!!!!!!!! I second Shortbus’s comment. You are a douche. A total douche. You know less about food and food service than the lowest level Sodexo employee. I’m so excited for you to return to the Capital District so I can enjoy your insights!!!!

  9. From FB permalink
    June 17, 2014 12:04 am

    We ate at Mexican Radio in Hudson a few times, in the year or two after moving to Albany from Brooklyn. I think the reason why we ate there might be related to the reason why people like it. It felt more cosmopolitan and interesting than what we knew in Albany that first year. My husband and I would take a La Mexicana taco over Mexican Radio any day, but at the time, we didn’t know La Mexicana or even El Mariachi. Mexican Radio felt a bit like home – slightly overpriced (to our perspective then), a restaurant that didn’t have an associated parking lot, and more interesting ingredients than restaurants on Wolf Road. Of course, it has been over 5 years since we’ve eaten there, or anywhere in Hudson. But it is a big step up from Chi-Chis and kudos to Mexican Radio for their downtown Schenectady location. All a matter of where one’s bar is and I fully appreciate your efforts to raise it for Capital Region residents.

  10. June 17, 2014 5:22 pm

    So if we’ve been there then it’s ok to say we don’t like them?

    I’ve been there. I think the food is terrible.

    And to add insult to injury, it’s ridiculously over priced and terrible at the same time.

    And saying a place has survived in Manhattan isn’t *that* big of a deal. It doesn’t mean it’s a great restaurant. Applebee’s survives in Manhattan just fine.

    • DEN permalink
      June 17, 2014 8:38 pm

      I don’t think anybody made the argument that if Mexican Radio survived in Manhattan, it must be a great restaurant. I brought up the Soho success, both commercially and ratings-wise, to suggest that a Schenectady success would not necessarily be “a further indictment of our region’s food culture,” as Daniel feared.

    • DEN permalink
      June 20, 2014 3:32 pm

      You see, I mount just the slightest defense of our region’s food culture and then the Times Union Best of the Capital Region list comes out to put me back in my place. Yikes!

  11. Jessica R W permalink
    June 17, 2014 6:32 pm

    I went to MR in Hudson a while back – maybe 7 years ago at this point. I remember ordering a Mexican dish served with three different sauces – once of which was a pumpkin seed sauce. At that point, I had never heard of a sauce made of pumpkin seeds, or seen anything like it on a local menu. The meal was good. The place earned my respect. I plan to go to the MR in Schenectady and enjoy it! Maybe I will even try one of those Sangrias gorgeousgoodness mentioned!

Trackbacks

  1. Okay, Mexican Radio, here’s your chance. Impress me. - Chuck Miller
  2. Okay, Mexican Radio, here’s your chance. Impress me. – Chuck The Writer

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