Although I was born and raised in Cheektowaga, I lived in California for 30-plus years, where I worked in "authentic" Mexican restaurants and ate at more Mexican restaurants than there are total restaurants in Buffalo. So, with that experience, I can say there is no true Mexican food to be found in Buffalo! I've been to them all and, true, they are called "Mexican," but that is where the similarity stops.
Oh yes, they have the usual tacos, burritos and enchiladas, and some do try more sophisticated recipes. But for the most part there is not one single Mexican restaurant here that offers: a true Chili Relleno, "braised-in-milk carnitas," Spanish rice that doesn't have the texture of bird seed, or a good, thick-with-vegetables and meatball-rich Albondigas soup.
But there is a "Mexican" restaurant in town that serves an enchilada made with Velveeta cheese ... unforgivable!
This lack of authentic Mexican food in Buffalo has been the only downside to "coming back home." -- Elaine, Depew.
I have been looking for authentic Mexican and Spanish food -- perhaps similar to Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill (in Chicago). Any suggestions? -- Carol, Hamburg
I am originally from the West Coast. In all the years I have been here I have not found a really good, authentic Mexican restaurant. Not a chef's interpretation of a Mexican restaurant, but good, home-style Mexican cooking. I must say I was spoiled by my son's grandmother (who was from Mexico). Can you suggest a place I could go buy a pint or quart of chili verde and handmade tortillas? I get homesick for all that great comfort food. I know there are other Buffalonians who have lived on the West Coast, moved back and are missing the same dishes we took for granted there. Any suggestions? -- Deborah, Tonawanda
A: Oh boy, oh boy! Or maybe, ay caramba! Can we have stumbled upon a void in the vibrant Western New York restaurant scene?
It isn't that we don't have any Mexican restaurants -- we have plenty, but some diners question their authenticity. They are yearning to dine beyond the fast-food taco route and are looking for a place that takes them there. My son lives in Austin, Texas, and I know what they mean.
Some diners want upscale Mexican. (Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill is indeed wonderful, although it isn't cheap. Bayless himself has become an industry.)
And some just want good food carefully prepared. I once visited the Super-Rica Taqueria in Santa Barbara, Calif., which Julia Child thought was the best Mexican restaurant in the country, and was bowled over with all those women patting out the tortillas. It was a real Mama-is-in-the-kitchen-and-she-loves-you kind of place.
Blaming Western New York for not having good Mexican restaurants is like blaming an apple for not being an orange. We don't have a large Mexican population, and many residents are not familiar with the variety of the food, so for years the demand hasn't really been there.
Jeff Giovino of the Coyote Cafe in Hamburg, a good choice in this area, once put tamales on his menu but was forced to take them off because they didn't sell.
Giovino does make his own chorizo and enchilada sauce from family recipes, but he changes the salsa somewhat. Western New Yorkers seem to like their salsa soupier than they do out West, he says.
Speaking of soup, Giovino also offers Sopa Fideo, a kind of Mexican spaghetti that he swears is traditional -- his family in Colorado, home to many good Mexican places, eats it.
Tantalus in East Aurora offers Mexican food on Thursdays, a diversion from the taco/burrito route -- you might want to try it.
And in a month or two, Western New York uber-chef Mike Andrzejewski (SeaBar) is planning to open his own Mexican cantina in Allentown. That might help to widen the field.
My advice is to keep trying, keep demanding and keep hoping.
Next week: buffets in downtown.
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