Looking for ‘authentic’ Mexican food in Albany, New York is like looking for ‘authentic’ New England food in California – it’s probably there somewhere, but good luck finding it. I’ve been eating some form of “Mexican food” since I was little, but it was about as complex as the “Italian food” my Mom used to make with a box of pasta, a jar of marinara or pesto sauce, and a tupperware of shredded parmesan cheese. No offense to my mother – she’s a great cook – but just like it’s easy to grow up here in suburbia thinking that tomato sauce + noodles = Italian food, it’s similarly easy to believe that beans + salsa + tortilla+ maybe rice and ground beef = Mexican food, or at least that it = tacos.
Since my newest special interest – food and cooking – came down the pipeline, and really ever since my first meal at Albany’s El Mariachi to some extent, I’ve been rethinking that idea. At El Mariachi I first learned about tamales, mole, and salsa verde. I also gained a deep appreciation for flan as the ideal post-Mexican-food dessert (apologies to churro and dulce de leche fans). To me, El Mariachi is a shadow of its old self, although I’d still like to go back sometime, if only to see whether it’s begun to approach my memories of it yet. I’d also be interested to see what else besides burritos is on its menu, now that my Mexican food tastes have expanded a bit.
I keep searching for a replacement for El Mariachi in my heart, and I still haven’t found one, but as far as good Mexican food in Albany goes, El Patron might come close.
The interior of El Patron is almost kitschily Mexican, with carved and colorfully painted wooden booths and chairs and plenty of stained glass, which is an aesthetic I actually enjoy. The air conditioning was either too low or on the fritz, which might be something to fix as summer in Albany heats up.
If I could “Brad Johnson” this review for a minute, the one downside to the food itself was probably the chips and salsa. The chips were warm, but could have been saltier. The salsa just tasted like tomato salsa from a jar, maybe medium or a spicier mild, but still unremarkable. I understand not wanting to spend much effort on what’s basically the bread basket before the actual meal, and it wouldn’t stop me from coming back at all, but a more interesting salsa, maybe the option of verde as well as rojo, as El Mariachi has, would have been fun.
One of the “green flags” about El Patron’s menu, as compared to some other upstate Mexican eateries I’ve seen, is the lack of pick-and-mix-ness in its tacos, burritos, and tamales. There are some combination plates available, but instead of “any taco/burrito/tamale with any meat inside,” or similar variations, there were actual taco-plate entrees, like the Baja Tacos (chicken with cheese and guacamole, and pico de gallo on the side, as well as the obligatory rice and refried beans). I could recognize the names of dishes I’d read about on food blogs like Bill Esparza’s, from tacos de carbon (the amount of Spanish on the menu also struck me as a positive sign) to flautas de papas on the vegetarian/vegan pages of the menu. I had just recently read about flautas de papas as a dish at the time, and being the potato fanatic that I am, I was seriously tempted. Due to the evening’s 90-degree heat, I decided against a dish heavy on starch (and heavy, period), but I still hope to go back and get my flautas.
Another positive sign on the El Patron menu is dishes that don’t fall into the standard Mexican-American “taco-burrito-tamale-chimichanga” formula. Although I didn’t personally catch any mole on the menu (and it may have been there and I just missed it), I noticed on the seafood portion of the menu in particular a number of entrees served sans tortillas, over rice, with ingredients like garlic sauce and pineapple. When you think about the Chipotle, Moe’s, and Taco Bell-based image of most Mexican food, allowing dishes that go against that image and seem at least halfway authentic on your menu seems ballsy, and reminded me pleasantly of El Mariachi’s dinner-entree-filled menu and white tablecloths, cloth napkins, and stemmed water glasses.
I’ve had a taste for shellfish lately, which manifests itself as cravings for either sushi or shrimp, and I tried the shrimp tacos. This was a very good decision, if not particularly adventurous. Unlike the other shrimp tacos I had recently, at Pancho’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant in Troy, the queso fresco in these was melted, and added richness, rather than a weird moment of “who put shredded pizza cheese blend in my shrimp?” The shrimp itself was cooked beautifully, still very juicy in the soft tortillas, although it probably could have had a little more of a kick. At the same time, I could taste the shrimp meat itself, which was satisfying. In addition, I was provided with some very nice pico de gallo on the side (which I prefer to red salsa personally), as well as a sauce that I can’t identify, except that it looked like some kind of balsamic vinaigrette but wasn’t, and appeared to have some peppers and mustard seeds in it. I poured a bit of both condiments on my tacos and found that the mustard seed sauce had a slow burn kind of spice to it, adding a refreshing note to the tacos, which the cheese began to make almost a little too rich. The rice and beans were tasty, with a little kick that’s unusual but pleasant for rice and refried beans (even though I tend to like whole black beans better than refried).
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to try the flan, because it took so long to get the check that we couldn’t imagine waiting even longer for dessert. The service was slow and a bit lackluster, even though we were almost the only ones at the restaurant. Still, no one was actively rude to us, and the server took the hint and brought us to-go containers for our rice and beans (good rice and beans is hard to find; I also brought the rest of my pico de gallo home) promptly after he saw us looking over at him while he put things away in a reach-in freezer and hung out with a coworker by the kitchen door.
Part of my love of El Mariachi stems from nostalgia, and no other restaurant will ever approach it on those terms. However, El Patron also doesn’t quite challenge it as a restaurant, at least not yet. Still, I plan to go back to El Patron to sample more of its menu, and if you’re looking for what quality Mexican food upstate New York can provide, this is definitely a great place to go.