WILLIAMSBURG — For many New Yorkers, the best Coca-Cola comes from South of the Border.
Made with sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup, Mexican Coca-Cola comes in a classic curvy green glass bottle and is invariably described by devoted fans as “real Coke.”
Greta Dana, owner of Taco Chulo in Williamsburg, has been stocking Mexican Coke since she opened the restaurant eight years ago. She says she’s seen an uptick in demand for the drink lately.
“The Mexican Coke craze has been sort of recent,” she said. “But it’s definitely become more of a thing that people ask for. It’s more of a trendy item, if you could say that about a Coke.”
Pepsi and Coca-Cola introduced high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to their sodas as a cheaper replacement for sugar in 1984. The United States is the only country to use high fructose corn syrup in its sodas, because sugar is more expensive here than anywhere else in the world due to government-imposed importation quotas used to protect American sugar producers.
Mexico’s got the good stuff: pure sugar cane sugar in its Coke recipe, though some findings hint that Mexican Coke may also contains some HFCS. Fans of the imported soda often argue that it has a more complex, more herbal, spicier flavor that American Coke lacks.
“Our customers actually love Mexican Coke,” said Adalis Velez, owner of La Gringa in East Williamsburg. “At first I thought it was just the hype or the nostalgia of the glass bottle, but after drinking it I realized there was something to all the madness. For me, it’s smoother, sweeter and colder. Mexican Coke is banging.”
While Mexican Coke was once imported to the U.S. through unofficial channels, the Coca-Cola Company began exporting it itself in 2005, spokeswoman Kerry Tressler explained.
"To guarantee a great beverage experience for fans of our product, the company began directly importing Coca-Cola from Mexico," she said. "The availability of Coca-Cola from Mexico and the use of the 'Hecho en México' marketing materials is based on preferences and demand in local markets."
The Coca-Cola Company, however, would not provide data regarding the increase in Mexican Coke imports.
“It’s a little less syrupy sweet, which I prefer,” he said. “The Cuba Libre — rum and Coke — we do at Donna works well with it and we go a little farther by adding some bitters and a little squeeze of lime juice.”
In Gowanus, Oaxaca has become a go-to spot for neighborhood fans to pick up the soft drink.
"A lot of people come in here and they’re like, 'You’ve got the Mexican Coke? Yes!'" said manager Marco Ricci. "Not many people sell the Mexican Coke around here so some people come in just to get the Mexican Coke."
The enthusiasm for Mexican Coke has even reached the Upper East Side.
"Some people do come in looking for the [Mexican] Cokes because they hear about it from other friends and they come in because they like the fact that they are made with real sugar unlike the regular Cokes," said Genne Rosendo, manager of Lexington Avenue's Burger One.
Greek lunch spot GRK in the Financial District opened in September 2012 with Mexican Coke in stock, alongside Greek sodas. Company spokesman Christopher Potter said that they wanted to stock the soda because it offered something unique to their discerning clientele.
"Although it has been around for some time, it has unique flavor and a following," he said.
"It is a healthier alternative, however, which is what we are striving for for our customers. It is made with sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup," Potter added.
The perception that Mexican Coke is a "healthier" soft drink choice is pervasive among business owners who stock it.
“The common through line as to why it's better is that it's 'made with real refined sugar' as opposed to American-made Coke,” said Jeff Bailey, owner of Whirlybird in Williamsburg. “It has a less gunky after-feel, and it's served in glass, which makes everything better.”
Mexican Coke is more expensive than regular Coke, but customers are willing to chip in a few extra bucks for the improved quality, restaurateurs say.
David Chang, owner of Momofuku Milk Bar, once angrily defended charging $5 for Mexican Coke, and Dana said she's also had to pass on the cost to Taco Chulo customers, who don't protest.
But maybe it really is all about the bottle, Bailey of Whirlybird theorizes.
"The shape of the bottle conjures the ghost of some long-dead prosperous American time, which may be appropriately ironic because its hecho'd in Mejico," he wrote in an email. "Hell, I don't even know if that's true. I drink the s--t out of it though, particularly after I eat something salty."