Boston’s Villa México and why hospitality still matters
One thing that often gets overlooked in these restaurant-crazy times is hospitality, as so often you hear about the quality of the food or drinks, the atmosphere, the “concept” (that’s a big one now), and the targeted customers, i.e., beautiful people, hipsters, business travelers, neighborhood folks, and so on. But what good is any of this if a place has a surly host, a server who goes out for a phone break every five minutes, or a manager who ignores complaints from diners? This is why such customer-focused spots as J.J. Foley’s in the South End, Helmand in Cambridge, and Villa México Café in downtown Boston can be seen as a breath of fresh air, and it is this latter restaurant that is particularly impressive, because in some ways, going there feels almost like heading to a friend’s house for a nice, leisurely meal.
Villa México has actually moved around a bit over the years, getting its start in Woburn before moving to the back of a gas station on Cambridge Street on the edge of Beacon Hill where it became a media and industry darling, in part for its unique location along with its combination of terrific food and hospitality. The eatery was forced to shut down in early 2013 to make way for new development and at the time, it wasn’t a sure thing that it would ever open back up again. But owner Julie King and her daughter Bessie found a space on Water Street in the Financial District, and Villa México was reborn in early 2016 in a space much different from that of the long-closed gas station, but one that’s less hidden and has a bit more space for customers who wish to dine in (the gas station space only had a few loose chairs by a window).
The current location of the dining spot is open for breakfast, lunch, and a very early dinner, as the place typically closes around 6 pm, and as is the case with a number of restaurants in the Financial District, it’s only open on weekdays, since the area tends to get pretty quiet when the offices shut down (and Water Street is a particularly quiet street with little foot—or car—traffic). The homey feeling of Villa México extends beyond its quiet location and plain but pleasant space, as Julie and Bessie treat their customers like family—and yes, that can often be an overused cliche, but in this case, it’s a wholly accurate one; as soon as people walk through the door, they’re greeted with a “How are you today, my friend?” along with warm smiles and a sense of caring that just isn’t found in the restaurant—or any—industry these days, which is perhaps why so many patrons are repeat customers who are on a first-name basis with the Kings.
When Villa México was in the gas station space, it was known mostly for its burritos and its black salsa, but now, the restaurant is known for a number of familiar Mexican food items that may seem a bit different from the Mexican-American versions of the dishes found at both the national chains and some local spots. Its website includes the line, “If we don’t eat it in Mexico, you won’t find it at our restaurant,” and indeed, Julie is from Mexico City, and the foods offered here are based on recipes from that area.
Highlights include the aforementioned burritos, which are placed on the grill to add a char and some crunchiness to the tortilla (there’s also a breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs); the smoky black salsa that has a sneakily hot kick that can quickly catch up to you; a smoothly textured guacamole that’s relatively mild with little in the way of onions; soft corn tortilla tacos with any number of meats added, though the chorizo taco is a mind-blowing option that’s about as good a food item as you’ll find anywhere in the city; a mole poblano plate that includes shredded chicken and a nicely balanced mole sauce; some old-school tamales that are very filling but not overly greasy (the shredded beef tamales are maybe the pick of the lot); quesadillas that will make you forget about the dried-out apps by the same name at your local sports bar; and a tres leches cake with a wonderfully creamy consistency. Prices at Villa México are pretty reasonable, with most dishes being under or right around $10.
On the surface, Boston’s Financial District has the look of a cold, soulless place, but it is surprisingly full of ma-and-pa businesses run by people who are genuinely interested in their customers. And Villa México is a solid example of this, being a home away from home for so many office workers who are looking for a quick, tasty bite to eat and a warm welcome that helps break up what might be an otherwise nondescript day.
VILLA MÉXICO. 121 WATER ST., BOSTON. VILLAMEXICOCAFE.US
Marc is the founder of @hiddenboston, a textbook editor, a hike leader for @AppMtnClub, and a food and travel writer and commenter for DigBoston, NBC/NECN, WBZ, WMFO and indie617.