We admit that we tend to take limes for granted. More often than not, we have five or more of them slowly gathering brown spots at the bottom of our crisper drawer, ready to be fished out at a moments notice to spritz over a pair of fish tacos or garnish an end-of-day gin and tonic. So it certainly was startling when the cost-effective citrus suddenly began fetching around $1 each at grocery stores, as part of an ongoing saga that reads like a Lifetime movie spec script starring The Rock.
Here’s what’s up in a nutshell — with lime crops throughout Mexico already severely diminished by alternate bouts of drought, frost and disease, the infamous drug cartel, the Knights Templar, seized a prime opportunity for extortion. They began hijacking trucks in the southwestern state of Michoácan, where the fruit is primarily grown, and demanding ransom from farmers. The gang was eventually forced to retreat, through joint pressure from the Mexican government and armed militias comprised of local vigilantes, but it’s done little to ease the suffering of lime farmers, who continue to endure shakedowns and threats of violence from all sides.
Naturally, trickle down effects of the ongoing crisis (while not nearly as dire as what’s ensuing in Mexico), are still keenly felt by restaurants, especially those specializing in South American or Southeast Asian cuisines. So we spoke to a few of our local, lime-loving restaurateurs, to find out how the citrus calamity is affecting their bottom line.
Ted Fleetwood Nugent, owner of Cubana Social in Williamsburg: “The lime situation has been crazy! Before this, limes could be bought for as little as $12 a case, then it hit almost $125, and I’ve heard numbers even greater than that. At all of my places, especially Cubana Social, Cebu Bistro and No Name Bar, we have become extremely aware of our lime use. We are planning the spring cocktails without lime or pricing them accordingly. Unfortunately a few of my locations have to serve signature cocktails, like the mojito, and this will just cause a larger expense to the house. At my other joints like Park Luncheonette and Matchless, we have begun to ask if our customer prefers a lime or not on certain drinks, in order to prevent any waste.”
Tamer Hamawi, owner of Gran Electrica in DUMBO: “Yes indeed we are suffering a lime crisis! Prices have tripled but our amazing purveyor has offered to sell us his limes at cost in order to help us through this tough period. Although this is a saving, the cost of lime is still more than double what it was. At this stage we have yet to alter pricing and/or menu items using lime. We have looked into pasteurized bottled limejuice, but unfortunately the taste just doesn’t hold up to that of freshly squeezed. Our award winning margaritas are too special to make that sacrifice, but if prices continue to rise, it may be a sacrifice we all have to make.”
Hugo Orozco, chef/owner of La Slowteria in Carroll Gardens: “The lime situation affects us of course. I use it a lot in the restaurant, but don’t want to move up the prices for just one ingredient. So we just started using lemon in most of the recipes, and I believe the flavor is not better or worse…just different. But hopefully this shortage ends soon, for the goodness of the ceviches!”
Henry Trieu, chef/owner of Falansai in Bushwick: “We use a lot of lime juice in the making of our dipping sauce (Nuoc Cham) that goes with many of our dishes. We also use lime as a condiment in our pho soup, limeade drink, and dessert. We stopped making the limeade about a month ago when the price went from ten limes for $2 to five for $2. Selling a limeade at $3 didn’t cover the cost of the limes. Around last week, we started to switch to lemon for our dipping sauce since the Vietnamese do use lemon interchangeably with lime. We will switch to lemon wedges as a condiment as well by the end of the week.”