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New El Barrio Taco Joint Built on Top of Old Taco Joint

By Gustavo Solis | September 21, 2017 11:22am

EAST HARLEM — When chef Julian Medina moved from Mexico to New York 20 years ago, it was so difficult to get authentic Mexican ingredients that a restaurant he worked for had to buy sauce from stores in El Barrio.

“When I came here there was nothing,” he said. “I used to come here to 103rd and Lexington to buy mole for the restaurant.”

Now, there seems to be a Mexican restaurant on every corner. And in East Harlem, there are multiple on a single block.

Since 2007, Medina has opened Latin-food restaurants all over the city — including Toloache Bistro Mexicano in Hell’s Kitchen, Yerba Buena in the East Village and Coppelia in Chelsea.

On Saturday, Medina opened a casual taco restaurant called La Chula on the corner of 116th Street and Lexington Avenue. The previous restaurant on that corner, El Aguila, was also a taco spot.

“Actually, [El Aguila’s] owner is a good friend of mine,” Medina said.  “So he called me and said, ‘I’m going back to Mexico. My partner cannot operate the restaurant, so I’m looking for someone to take over.’”

Medina initially declined. But the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to open another taco shop in East Harlem.

While living on the Upper East Side, Medina used to head north whenever he craved authentic tacos. He remembers eating at El Aguila, as well as El Paso on 103rd Street and Taco Mix on 116th Street.

Opening La Chula in a neighborhood known for Mexican food gives Medina the opportunity to be a bit adventurous with the menu. Unique items include beef tongue, pig ear, and sweet potato and chorizo tacos.

La Chula also serves ceviche, tortas and gringas, which are open-face quesadillas served with chicken, beef or pork. The restaurant has a liquor license, so patrons can enjoy margaritas, cocktails, or Micheladas with their food.

He hopes his restaurant's casual style and high quality will help it stand out from the rest of East Harlem’s taco shops.

When asked why people should go to La Chula when they have so many options, Medina didn’t hesitate.

“I think because my tacos are better,” he said. “A lot of the taco joints don’t have a full bar, they don’t have margaritas with fresh fruit.”