Hello, everyone and welcome to Let’s Read An Old Menu! After just over a year (and what a fucking nightmare of a year it’s been,) I’m back to look at restaurant, hotel kitchen, and lunch counter menus from the 19th and 20th centuries– hopefully with slightly more frequency than once per annum. Sometimes things will be familiar, sometimes they’ll be weird. But one thing you can count on is that they’ll almost always have cottage cheese on the menu, and they’ll almost never actually explain what’s in anything…
…But not this time. This time we’ve got a menu that dares to explain to you what a tortilla is. And that’s why it’s so interesting: Our very second article, way back in another lifetime (the spring of 2019), took a look at a Mexican restaurant in Montana in the 70s. There, out west and less than fifty years ago, Mexican food was still something of an exotic specialty. But down east, almost twenty years earlier? It was practically unheard of, even in cosmopolitan Manhattan!
What’s For Lunch?
Xochitl Mexican Restaurant, at 146 West 46th Street, Manhattan, in 1959.
Is The Restaurant Still There? If not, what can we find out about it?
Xochitl was founded in 1938 by one Juvencio Maldonado, an electrician from the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, who emigrated to New York in 1929. I’m not completely certain, but research leads me to believe that it was, if not the first Mexican restaurant in the City, at least the only one for a while. The name Xochitl is the Nahuatl word for “flower”, and a semi-common Mexican women’s name.
In 1950, Maldonado received the first patent for a hard-shell taco-making machine, devised after the cooks complained about the spattering oil from the popular menu item. That’s right, today we are talking about the man who made the taco what it is in American-Mexican cuisine! (the first mention of such taco shells in writing was only a year earlier, in The Good Life: New Mexican Traditions and Foods, written by Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert.)
With its unique cuisine and Times Square location, Xochitl was a mainstay of the New York restaurant scene for many years. Even by the time of our menu, Maldonado billed Xochitl as “New York’s best and only real Mexican restaurant.” A 1974 review in the New York Times suggests that its star had fallen somewhat by that time, expressing fondness for its low prices and homey familiarity but recommending one La Azteca on 69th Street as more ambitious and better quality.
Alas, Xochitl seems to have closed sometime after the passing of Maldonado in 1980 at the age of 82. The site is today occupied by Cafe Abbondanza, which seems to be a combination coffee-and-sandwich shop and Italian restaurant. Above the cafe are apartments, where once was Maldonado’s tortilla factory.
I told you they’d be explaining some really basic stuff! Imagine having to describe tacos. It’s not technically wrong to say that tamales contain the same ingredients as enchiladas– at least, assuming one means masa and fat rather than specifically tortillas, but it feels strange to describe them that way. It also feels strange to make no mention of the chocolate in mole, unless it’s one of those weird moles that doesn’t have any chocolate– but I doubt it, if you’re only gonna have one mole on the menu, especially since Oaxacan mole usually has it.
$1 in 1959=$8.94 in 2021
With those prices in mind some of these seem a little steep, but only a little. Most of the things you would expect are there, with the exception of burritos– not surprising, that’s very much a northern thing and I have no problem believing Juvencio Maldonado lived and died without ever seeing a burrito. As with the first page, so many things I would take for granted knowing about, like rellenos, nopales, and chorizo, are described in explicit English translation– stuffed peppers, baby cactus, sausages. According to the Times review I posted upthread the rellenos on page 4 were made with bell peppers rather than poblanos, which I hope is a lie because that sounds extremely disappointing.
Listing Tequila as a whiskey is perhaps the strangest thing on the menu to me. Unless it’s having to explain that Kahlua is coffee-flavored. Another strange omission: No margaritas. Though there is a tequila sour, I guess that would probably taste pretty similar.