Food Network is one of the most influential culinary resources available; their website, magazine and television shows the go-to for an estimated 100 million people. This past December, New Paltz’s own Mexicali Blue brought the focus local when their short rib burrito was featured by Food Network as one of the country’s best burritos.
“It’s all the fresh ingredients in it that make it so good,” says Mexicali Blue owner and chef, Chris Nicolosi. His passion for putting complex flavors together is reflected in the tortilla’s filling: fresh vegetable rice, black beans, coleslaw, fresh guacamole, pico de gallo, onion marmalade, a sweet chili sauce and fresh cilantro.
But the star of it all is the tender, juicy, short rib; de-boned, seared with butter, marinated overnight in Modelo Negra beer and seasonings and then cooked slowly in the oven for up to seven hours. The entire process takes 26 hours from start to finish, notes Nicolosi, which means that when they run out of the meat, there are no more short rib burritos until the following day.
And running out of the special burrito has become a distinct reality at both the New Paltz Mexicali Blue and its other location in Wappingers Falls. The nationwide commendation has created a bit of a feeding frenzy for the short rib burrito, which Nicolosi says wasn’t even that popular before it made the Food Network list. “Now I go through probably 100 pounds of short rib a week. And Wappingers goes through even more, maybe 300-400 pounds a week. It’s a bigger location, but still; we didn’t think it was going to get this big.”
The short rib burrito is on the menu now at the Wappingers Falls Mexicali Blue, but in New Paltz, it’s still just on the specials board, though Nicolosi says he has a feeling the item isn’t going anywhere any time soon, no matter how much work it takes to create them.
The burrito was selected as a “best” by Food Network after it was submitted for consideration by Chris’s brother, Tommy, co-owner of the Wappingers Falls Mexicali Blue along with their dad, Sal. The three jointly own the Mexicali Blue brand. Other Nicolosi family members are involved in the business, too, with older brother Anthony handling marketing for the company and Chris’s wife, Dana, working with him in the New Paltz location. As the company’s resident chef, Chris says he works with the cooks on the line in Wappingers to make sure the product is consistent across both locations. “I’m very hands-on with everybody; everything goes through me before it goes to customers.”
The short rib burrito was included on a list of 34 best burritos nationwide, presented in no particular order. Burritos from two other eateries in New York were also selected, one in Binghamton and the other in New York City (https://www.foodnetwork.com/restaurants/photos/best-burritos-in-the-country.)
Last year Mexicali Blue won for “Best Taco” in radio station 101.5’s “Battle of the Best” competition, a designation Chris says they’re also proud of. Decided by the listeners, Mexicali Blue received 22 percent of the vote. “My tacos are very elaborate,” he says. “Nothing is simple; I don’t like simple.”
(When asked if Chris cooks at home, too, his wife, Dana, says he does. “And nothing simple there, either!”)
Mexicali Blue will have been in its New Paltz location at 87 Main Street for 14 years this March. It’s small, seating a max of 10 people — and that’s if they don’t mind sitting close to one another — so the business is primarily take-out, with an app and online ordering available and delivery through Carry Out Kings. The Wappingers Falls location on Route 9 was opened seven years ago. The larger site accommodates full-service dining with beer and wine and a larger menu along with live entertainment.
When Chris and his dad, Sal, first opened the New Paltz location, it had already been operating as a small taco/burrito place called Mexicali Blue. Chris, who says he’s known he wanted to be a chef since he was 12 years old growing up in Pleasant Valley, was just weeks away from graduation at Connecticut Culinary Institute, so was all in when Sal discovered the business was for sale and asked his son, “Want to open a restaurant?”
“We came in, redid the place, and created the menu,” Chris says. “We sat down and brainstormed, cooking every idea we had, testing and tweaking them.” Sal didn’t have a restaurant background, but he enjoyed cooking, and like most Italian families, food had always been the glue that held them together.
The menu adopted reflects a California-style approach to Southwestern cooking, with the emphasis on fresh and natural ingredients. Tacos are wrapped in flavorful blue corn tortillas made especially for the restaurant, and burritos have a nice texture, seared on the bottom after being filled to ensure the burrito doesn’t fall apart when picked up.
Mexicali Blue also makes their own hot sauce, available in nine varieties that include blueberry, pineapple, coconut, and chipotle, each made with fresh ingredients. Eat-in and carryout customers can help themselves to the sauces, but they’re also available bottled. Labeled with the restaurant’s logo of a friendly, fish-taco-bearing skeleton wearing a serape and sombrero, the bottles are sold only through the two restaurant locations. (Regulars have been known to buy a case at a time.) No co-packer is involved; on nights when Nicolosi makes the sauce, they fill 1,000 bottles at a time right in the small New Paltz kitchen.
Mexicali Blue is open seven days a week. For more information, visit Mexicali-blue.com.