Cinco de Mayo isn’t much of a holiday in Mexico, yet each year the United States is all in, as mariachi bands perform across the land, tequila-inspired diners take swings at piñatas, and everywhere tacos are the special of the day. Meanwhile, Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16 goes practically unremarked. Imagine if, say, Italy went wild for America with cookouts, country music, and cold Budweiser each Patriots Day but didn’t really seem to know the Fourth of July was a thing.
Well, when in Rome … or wherever. It’s hard to be mad at an occasion that offers an excuse to eat tacos. Or sell them. Cinco de Mayo drives traffic to restaurants that need it more this year than ever. In 2018, according to data from commerce platform Womply, May 5 (a Saturday) was the third-highest day of revenue for the year, after the Saturday and Sunday of Mother’s Day weekend and just before No. 4, St. Patrick’s Day. Last year, irresistibly, it took place on Taco Tuesday; the volume of takeout orders overwhelmed third-party delivery services nationwide.
This year, it’s a plain old Wednesday, but let’s not let that stop us, shall we? In the annals of extremely small and irrelevant pandemic bummers each of us can catalog alongside the larger tragedies, in March 2020 I was supposed to meet a friend in Mexico City, a journey that wasn’t to be. I’m still trying to make up for lost tacos. Cinco de Mayo is as good an opportunity as any to do so.
Several Mexican restaurants opened locally just before or during the pandemic. Cósmica, which debuted at the South End’s Revolution Hotel last February, serves what it calls “Cal-Mex specialties and vacation cocktails.” It’s a project from the folks behind the Beehive; executive chef Colton Coburn-Wood previously helped create the menu at Yellow Door Taqueria. Cinco de Mayo brings a taco and margarita party with mariachi music, a piñata, and a chile-eating contest: classic. The patio is idyllic and the takeout game is strong — from the excellent smoky guacamole to the spring-y crab and pea churros with strawberry rhubarb chamoy to the chile-roasted brisket taco bowl. Taco kits feed your backyard guests with lamb barbacoa, chicken verde, roasted spring vegetables, and all the accompaniments. Margaritas, sangria, and more are available to go.
And La Neta, from Sonoran restaurateur Allan Rodriguez (El Centro, La Catrina), opened this February. The “authentic pinche taco shop,” which features close quarters and a bit of patio along with takeout (including booze), might be one of Newbury Street’s best deals at the moment. Portions are substantial, and many tacos can be had for $5. The list of fillings is long, and there are also burritos, Sonoran-style quesadillas, tortas, enchiladas, and more. Among the specialties are cheesy quesabirria tacos, a social media sensation, dunked in the juices of the stew that fills them. Don’t let them overshadow another of the menu’s stars, simply called the pinche taco, featuring shredded beef in a flour tortilla soaked in barbacoa broth and griddled.
But if it’s Mexico City energy you’re after, there may be no better place to begin than Barra in Somerville’s Union Square. Co-owners Yhadira Guzmán and Paola Ibarra are from Mexico City; the two longtime friends opened their spot — the name means, simply, “bar” — in consultation with hometown chef Sofía García Osorio, who remains involved remotely. They wanted to bring what they love about their city’s food scene to the Boston area. “It’s quite different from the idea or generalization of Mexican food here,” says Ibarra, who also works at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard. “It’s more like slow cooking, not massive plates. It’s very vibrant.”
The menu reflects that: succinct, free of platters brimming with rice and beans, leaning toward lighter bites. There are several takes on aguachile, ceviche’s Mexican cousin; a version with cod is perfumed with passionfruit, the fish tossed with bites of orange and avocado. Tetelas are triangular pockets of blue corn, plump with a filling of beans and cheese, topped with cactus salad and a smattering of crisped, nut-brown grasshoppers. The accompanying salsa is made in a molcajete, a mortar of volcanic stone. An array of chiles warm the food: chiltepin, morita, serrano. Corn appears in many forms, from esquites, off the cob and rich with spicy mayo, to a sweet pumpkin tamal for dessert. Always, there are house-made tortillas.
“We’re not treating the tortilla as a container or a way to just pick up whatever else is on top,” says García Osorio, with Ibarra translating. “You can smell the corn. You can taste it. Finding that, where every ingredient counts, is crucial.”
“We are focused on ingredients and the traditional method of preparation. That’s what we care about,” Guzmán adds.
It’s the same at the bar. Ibarra, who developed the beverage program for neighboring Peruvian restaurant Celeste when it opened, here highlights Mexican spirits such as mezcal, sotol, raicilla, and Oaxacan whiskey. (“Except for tequila,” Guzmán says. “We don’t like tequila very much.”) These are featured in cocktails like the Mezcaperol, a Mexican-style spritz, and the Malverde, sotol with cucumber, mint, and lime. But the best way to experience them is by sipping. There are about 20 kinds of mezcal on offer, made from various types of agave, along with several variants of sotol, which comes from a different plant, the desert spoon. A side-by-side tasting of the two illuminates their differences; sotol is earthier, brighter, more flowery beside the smoky mezcal. There are flavored salts available to accentuate the spirits, enhanced with prickly pear, chiles, spices, and insects; grasshoppers and ginger, ants and cardamom, agave worm and hierba santa, stink bug. Customers have been very interested in sampling different kinds of mezcal and sotol, the proprietors say — and very open to trying insects.
Barra, which opened at the end of February 2020, just a few weeks before shutdown, was intended as the kind of cramped hangout where people stood and mingled, drinking and snacking. It’s a tiny space that used to be a juice bar. But these days a cozy backyard patio with ample heaters and a new parklet out front bring more seating and greater visibility to the restaurant. “I think the street is really looking beautiful,” Ibarra says. The energy reminds her of Mexico City. “There’s vibrance, people in the streets, a festive mood. We get comments that people feel like they’re on vacation, they are so relaxed.”
Mexico City with a touch of America: Barra is celebrating Cinco de Mayo this year, as weather permits.
“In the beginning, we were super-pretentious about it and didn’t want to celebrate Cinco de Mayo ever,” says Guzmán. She laughs, and I can practically hear the shrug in her voice over the phone. “We saw the sales and surrendered to the marketing.”
And why not? There is a special of cochinita pibil tacos to mark the occasion, along with the usual food and drink. It’s a good way to introduce new customers to Mexico City-style dining.
“People are happy. They really want to celebrate with us. It’s a party,” Guzmán says.
Barra, 23a Bow St., Union Square, Somerville, 617-764-1750, www.barraunionsquare.com. Cósmica, 40 Berkeley St., South End, Boston, 617-313-7878, www.cosmicaboston.com. La Neta, 255 Newbury St., Back Bay, Boston, 857-284-7399, www.lanetataco.com.