El Centro: Midtown’s Hidden Mexican Marvel
My lunchtime foray to El Centro was random and unplanned, considering it sits a whopping six blocks (an adventurous distance with a backpack) from campus in Hell’s Kitchen and looks like just another one of those unremarkable ethnic restaurants that line 9th avenue. However, this casual Mexican spot serves unbelievably satisfying and high quality grub with a fresh authentic taste and a refreshing simplicity.
The corner restaurant, sitting on 9th and 54th, is surprisingly small and yet somehow still airy. Large windows line two walls and allow for some pretty fantastic people watching (as we all know Hell’s Kitchen houses a pretty eclectic crowd…). The decor is loud and intentionally kitschy; the booths lining three walls are bright primary colors; an overwhelming collection of chintzy milagros cover one wall, glinting coyly in the sunlight; repurposed Corona bottles make appearances as light fixtures and salt & pepper shakers. The overall effect is cheery and fun, such that El Centro is essentially just begging you to have a margarita or three.
The simple Mexican food smacks of California influence, with bright colors and fresh ingredients. The usual cast of characters is all there: enchiladas, nachos, tacos, empanadas, tamales, quesadillas, fajitas, burritos and so forth. What’s so remarkable about El Centro’s food is that the flavors shine and the technique is spot-on; the salsa is appropriately spicy, no sags or flops, the cheese tastes of real cheese and not over-processed shredded crap out of a bah, the guacamole looks freshly smashed. Nothing is muddled or bland; instead, such ordinary Mexican dishes sing with unexpected freshness. The nachos are particularly good – a few notches above the typical pub food with large pools of gooey melted cheese, crisp tortilla chips, hot ‘n spicy tomato salsa, creamy cones of sour cream, and your choice of succulent medium-rare cuts of steak, thick and hearty rounds of chorizo, or bits of juicy marinated chicken. Also tasty are the enchiladas, specifically when topped with perfectly cooked slices of tender hangar steak; the rounds of tortilla aren’t overly crispy or soggy and they have a definable corn flavor.
El Centro is delightfully kitschy and fun with playful colors, playful staff, and a very playful drinks menu. If you need to unwind, the fruity frozen margaritas will certainly do the trick. Desperately seeking good Mexican food in a city not known for its Mexican? El Centro is your pick. Work driving you so nuts its driven you to alcohol? Boozy lunch is hot here. Hot. (Disclaimer: I do not endorse drinking on the job. Obviously.) No matter what your excuse may be, make sure you get yourself over to Hell’s Kitchen to sample El Centro’s wide array of fantastic and satisfying traditional Mexicali dishes.
Perfect For: munchies & margaritas, boozy brunch, a mexican feliz cumpleanos fiesta!, west coasters on the east coast, mexican food fanatics, cheap eats