At Tulcingo, staples like cemitas and tacos are made with Jesús Verdejo's unique seasoning. Photo by Rey Verdejo.

is still recovering from the Cinco de Mayo madness. A true family-run business, the Hell’s Kitchen staple needed help from the owners’ daughter, Yesenia Verdejo, who flew in from Houston, Texas on their busiest day of the year. As it did every May 5, the restaurant and deli saw more than its regular share of customers for the anniversary of the Mexican army’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. 

On this year’s day of remembrance, we asked the Verdejos to reminisce about the early days of Tulcingo del Valle, and to reflect on its staying power.

The business started back in 2001, when Verdejo’s parents, Jesús and Irma Verdejo, opened a Mexican deli. It was supposed to launch the week of 9/11, but after the tragedy, they pushed it back a week. 

“Everyone was so distraught and uncertain then,” said Irma Verdejo. “No one was spending even a dollar, so I thought, ‘did I waste all my hard-earned money?’ But I said, ‘I’ll try again.’ I’ve never been afraid to take risks.”&Բ;

Irma and Jesús Verdejo opened Tulcingo del Valle in Hell’s Kitchen shortly after 9/11. Photo by Rey Verdejo.

A few years later, they annexed the store next door to open a sit-down restaurant. Eight years ago, they opened up a bar, which Yesenia’s brother runs and where her mother is the lead mixologist. 

“That happened by accident,” said Irma, chuckling. The previous bartender would come in late to work and drunk, and had sketchy accounts. “When I saw it wasn’t working out with him, I said, ‘nah, we’re going to grab everything by the horns or we won’t do anything.’”&Բ;

So she started studying mixology on Youtube and Instagram. 

Tulcingo del Valle, named after their hometown in the state of Puebla, Mexico, centers on traditional Poblano food. Among them: mole dishes, barbacoa (barbecued beef or goat), and cemita, a sandwich that features thin slices of meat, quesillo, refried beans, avocado slices, an herb called papalo, and chipotle peppers.

“What has made people always come back is that we are consistent with ingredients, because we’ve never changed the quality,” said Yesenia. “If you come back a month from now, if you come back next year, you’re still gonna taste the same cemitas or the same exact chilaquiles.”&Բ;

Part of what keeps their dishes tasting homemade is importing ingredients from Mexico, she says. And her dad makes his own seasoning, which can transform a basic taco. It shows in their regulars who stop by even when they have moved to Queens or the Bronx.  

“They still drive all the way here to get their Mexican fix,” Yesenia said. “They say it’s a one-of-a-kind thing they find that [others] haven’t been able to match.”&Բ;

Traditional Mexican pork ribs and rice and beans are prepared Poblano-style. Photo by Rey Verdejo
Traditional Poblano-style pork ribs, mole, and rice and beans are just some of Tulcingo’s staples. Photo by Rey Verdejo.

While other Mexican restaurants in the neighborhood have closed, Tulcingo has withstood gentrification. They used to have a strong customer base of Mexicans and other Latinos from Hell’s Kitchen. But a little more than a decade ago, she noticed the rise in rents started pushing them out. “[Now] we have more of a gringo kind of community going on here,” said Yesenia. 

Community support helped Tulcingo stay open throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Customers would bring boxes of masks and sanitizers so staff could stay safe.

“They’re the ones that helped us get all this pandemic stuff … and that meant a lot to us,” she said. “Our community has always been the type that you can count on them to watch your back — if something’s going on nearby, they’ll come and let you know.”&Բ;

Exciting developments are on the horizon: the Mexican deli part of Tulcingo will soon transform into a coffee shop with the same care for tradition-infused flavors. And Irma will continue to expand the family brand in Houston, where she sees a gap in authentic Mexican food in the crowded Tex-Mex restaurant scene. Her daughter, a coffee aficionada, will help run it. Both in their Hell’s Kitchen location and Houston, the Tulcingo coffee shop will feature Puebla-style antojitos with their coffee.

When asked if the coffee roasting will also follow their family tradition, Irma joked the traditional way would not be up to federal health codes. But tradition will, like always, be infused in their small bites and care for customers.  

“If your passion is to always provide the same service, that counts a lot,” she said. “If you’re not in it for the love of the food, of the tradition, you’re not gonna enjoy it. It’s a lot of patience —  sometimes you’re not able to spend holidays together or big family moments, but it’s all worth it.”&Բ;

665 10th Ave.

New York, NY 10036 

(212)-262-5510

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. .