Authentic Mexican Street Food at Newport’s La Vecina Taqueria

Chef Mariana Gonzalez-Trasvina’s menu mines memories of Mexico City

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“There’s just something so comforting about eating a good taco,” says Mariana Gonzalez-Trasvina. The executive chef of Bar Cino is also running the kitchen of La Vecina Taqueria, a new Mexican street food-inspired eatery she co-conceived with Newport Restaurant Group.

“When restaurants were allowed to reopen [during the pandemic], Bar Cino could operate only at 50 percent capacity with the restrictions,” explains Gonzalez-Trasvina. She and her team brainstormed ways to get the restaurant to full capacity and bring everyone back to work. Taking over an empty retail space beside Bar Cino expanded their footprint enough that they returned to normal numbers. But when restrictions were lifted, they had a new space they needed to fill. “Bar Cino was not meant to double its capacity,” she says. So they decided to try a two-week pop-up.

“Our beverage director, Shawn Westhoven, was GM at the time, and he told me to cook what I loved,” she says. For Gonzalez-Trasvina, cooking from the heart meant cuisine from her native Mexico City. La Vecina (its translation means “the girl next door”) was born.

Gonzalez-Trasvina left Mexico City at eight, when her mother’s corporate job brought them to Puerto Rico. She discovered cooking while living on the island and decided to get her culinary degrees (two of them, one in pastry and one in culinary arts) from Johnson & Wales University. “I love pastry; that’s what put me in the kitchen,” she says. “But what makes me passionate are the cultures behind the foods, and that’s reflected more on the savory side.”

While in Providence, Gonzalez-Trasvina fell in love with southern New England and opted to remain local. She started cooking with Newport Restaurant Group as an intern, working her way through their various kitchens before becoming vested in the employee-owned company and taking the reins at Bar Cino. There, she was nominated for a Rising Star Award by the James Beard Foundation in 2020.

But the inspiration for La Vecina came from roots firmly planted in Mexico. “My best memories [of Mexico] are spent around the table, sharing stories about how a dish was made, or how my great-great-grandmother first made our masa recipe,” she says. “It helped me connect with my culture.”

Nostalgia for home fuels La Vecina’s menu. “I dug into my memories. What stood out for me whenever I went to Mexico City? What foods did I long for all year?”

She began with the masa for the tortilla. “There’s actually thousands of types of corn that are native to Mexico. There’s red, there’s purple, there’s yellow. You don’t see it up here because of the climate,” she says. By using blue corn masa instead of white, Gonzalez-Trasvina was able to conjure a more authentic eating experience. “Blue masa actually has a lot more depth because the grain is less processed. You taste that earthy flavor.”

Because this is a taqueria, six different tacos are on the menu, including the al pastor, which Gonzalez-Trasvina calls the taco of Mexico City. “It actually has its background from Middle Eastern immigrants,” she explains. “The al pastor looks very much like the shish kebab. Meat on a skewer, marinated and slow roasted,” she ticks off the similarities. “But the Mexican people used pork instead of lamb, because that’s the meat we had available. Then all the spices, the chili, the pineapple. It turned into this beautiful taco that is very representative of the city I was born in.

“It took me maybe five or six attempts to actually get the marinade right,” she adds with a laugh.

As the final touches are put on La Vecina’s build-out, Gonzalez-Trasvina remains astonished by the reception her restaurant concept received. “I was not expecting that it would be embraced as quickly as it was. You do get a little nervous making food that maybe people haven’t tried before,” she says. “But when you do something that’s close to your heart, you can taste the outcome.”

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