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Posts from the ‘mexican’ Category

Mole: Classic Mexican with West Village Flair

Since I moved to the West Village in 2009 and subsequently left it this past spring, I have wanted to try Mole, a classic Mexican restaurant on the corner of Hudson Avenue and Jane Street that seems consistently mobbed. Owned by the same team behind Yorkville’s beloved Taco Taco and a similar Mole Lower East Side Location, Mole focuses on presenting traditional Mexican fare like sopas, burritos, taquitos, fresh grilled corn, and empanadas in a casual, eclectic and friendly environment.

Situated on Hudson Avenue where the West Village begins to fade into the Meatpacking District, Mole is distinctly more West Village than Meatpacking in character. Instead of flashy, it is quirky and low-key; instead of chart-topping hip hop hits, Latin American tunes and old-school jazz floats from the speakers; instead of gaggles of girls in stilettos and skin-tight dresses, a more mellow hipster crowd comes a-callin’. Mole is to the West Village as Dos Caminos is to the Meatpacking District. The small space is colorful, with rust-colored exposed brick, burnt orange Mexican tile, artwork flecked with bright blues, reds and yellows, and sparkling silver pendant lanterns. Rough exposed ceiling beams, rustic wooden floorboards, and an open kitchen in the back lend a warm and homespun feel to the place. On cool summer nights, the sidewalk patio is a wonderful spot to sit and watch the world go by.

The food at Mole is a sort of greatest hits compilation of traditional Mexican cuisine. Expect tacos, burritos, empanadas, chips & gaucamole, all sorts of salsas, quesadillas, ceviches, taquitos, sopes, fajitas, and carne asada. The mostly simple dishes are well-executed, flavorful, and familiar – a far better version of the cheap takeout Mexican food that appears on virtually every Manhattan block. The queso fundido starter is decadent, consisting of an entirely over-the-top bowl of gooey melted cheese (best when topped with marinated crumbled chorizo), paired with jalapeno slices and a marvelous salsa verde, and big enough for a large group. Rich and delicious, it far surpasses that served as nearby Empellon. Burritos are almost comically large – served over-stuffed like your favorite couch, pillowy, and twice the size of a typical burrito. The grilled marinated chicken filling is light, tender, juicy, and especially marvelous with accompanied by the silky homemade guacamole.

Mole’s tacos come in a dizzying array of mix-and-match options. You can have two stuffed with everything from chorizo and carne asada to three different types of pork (carnitas, chipotle with cabbage, and adobo marinated) or a vegetarian blend of spinach, cabbage and mushrooms. Or, if you want something more than your classic tacos, you can opt for the taquitos borrachos, crispy and slender fried tacos lightly-stuffed with shredded beef and sprinkled with cotija cheese. Seafood tacos are also available, as either baja-style shrimp or fish (a raw seared tuna when I stopped by), and served on blue corn tortillas with light and zesty dipping sauces. The options continue with soft tacos filled with adobo marinated pork and succulent grilled pineapple, ‘american’ style tacos with ground beef, lettuce, tomato and onions, and shredded beef brisket tacos with guacamole.

Mole is a casual and uncomplicated spot – ideal for neighborhood dining, a mellow margarita happy hour amongst good friends, or a casual date spot for long-term lovers. It’s charming and relaxed with a menu that doesn’t attempt too much and pleases in its simplicity. The kitchen executes the classic Mexican fare well, with lots of spices, salt and seasoning – the product just tastes great. Service suits the mood; it’s warm, welcoming and friendly, where your waiter always says good-bye as you walk out and the bartender waves hello when new guests walk in. All in all, Mole is not a game-changing restaurant, a hotspot, or a ‘fine dining’ establishment, but it’s just marvelous for a late weekend lunch, happy hour or an informal dinner with colleagues, family or friends.

 

Mole on Urbanspoon

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Toloache: New York Mexican’s Happy Medium

There are a whole bunch of weird things about Toloache (it’s Times Square location and the chintzy neon sign are two), and yet, whether because of the excellent sangria or the crave-worthy guacamole, the laid-back environment or cheap prices, Toloache just works. The sister restaurant to the far more gentile Yerba Buena Perry in the West Village, Toloache is like the black sheep of the family – a little raunchy, a little dirty, flashier and commanding attention.

Just off Times Square, Toloache is a shining neon star in an otherwise epicurean wasteland too popular with T.G.I. Friday’s-seeking tourists. The space is quirky – bi-level, with a crowded bar, and tables crowded into corners, behind the hostess stand, next to the guac-making counter. Design-wise though, the look is spicy and thrilling with warm yellow walls, mustard-colored leather banquettes, traditional blue-and-white tilework embedded into smooth brown adobe bricks, quirky and ornate metal lanterns, and deep red candles flickering on each table. Toloache is elegant yet just raucous enough to entice the young after-work crowd and serious diners alike.

Toloache’s modern Mexican fare is remarkably cheap – especially in comparison to that offered by its sibling Yerba Buena Perry. Mostly everything except for the large entree-size dishes is under $15. And trust me, you can have quite the special meal without spending $27 on a ‘platos principales.’ The trio of guacamole is a must-have to kick off the meal. Each of the three has a completely unique flavor: the ‘mild’ is your guacamole tradicional, served chunky with plenty of thick avocaod, the ‘medium’ is stuffed with pomegranate, mango, peach, apple, and Thai basil and is possibly the most addictive dip ever, and the ‘hot’ is zesty with chipotle peppers and cooling queso fresco. Also wonderful are the tacos – served on perfectly cooked soft tacos and nicely stuffed with filling. The ‘Suadero’ option with Negro Modelo-braised brisket and a tangy horseradish cream is packed with bold and hearty flavors ; the ‘pescado’ with baja tilapia and thick guacamole is a house favorite, recommended by the server, and freshing; the ‘de pastor’ mixes together savory/sweet grilled pineapple (mmm mmm) and juicy pork – just marvelous.

If you’re not in the mood for tacos, the Mexican restaurant’s take on fondue ‘queso fundido’ is decadent and gooey, loaded with all sorts of earthy mushroom bits, and the braised short ribs quesadilla, glued together with creamy Chihuahua cheese, creme fraiche, and a dusting of pico de gallo, is perfect for carnivores looking for a not-too-heavy meal option. Lastly, its no secret that Central and South Americans know how to work with meat – and those in the kitchen at Toloache are no exception. For example, the carne asada skirt steak is tender and cooked to a bright magenta medium rare; served with Toloache’s addictive guacamole and a bonus mole cheese enchilada, it’s flavorful, zesty, and satisfyingly meaty.

Toloache is a breath of fresh air in a neighborhood known for Ruby Tuesday’s, Bubba Gump, and an altogether too large T.G.I. Friday’s. It has the suave and quirky style of a downtown restaurant, the cooking chops to rival the high-end Mexican spots cropping up all over town (it’s certainly better than the inexplicably raved-about Empellon), and the vibrant youthful energy of a tequila bar. Sounds like a winning combination to me!

Perfect For: midtown west after-work drinks, guac and margs, pre- and post- theater dinner

Toloache on Urbanspoon

Chef’s Table at Hecho en Dumbo: No Reinvention of the Wheel

Hecho en Dumbo, the former DUMBO-Brooklyn and now Bowery hipster Mexican hangout, has introduced a Chef’s Table. For a dark and ‘artfully grungy’ restaurant not necessarily known for its cooking, the introduction of a sleek Momofuku Ko-style table at the open kitchen is an interesting maneuver. And to mixed results, the Chef’s Table at Hecho en Dumbo doesn’t whack the concept out of the park, but it isn’t a failure either. The five course prix-fixe menu is $55, a wonderful value for the generally high-quality cuisine; however, the food wasn’t so good or so innovative that it reinvented the wheel and I left not entirely sure what the kitchen meant to showcase through the Chef’s Table set-up.

The Chef’s Table at Hecho en Dumbo is in the back of the restaurant, past the bar and the slightly grimy dining area. It’s a smooth pale wooden bar, overlooking the kitchen, with high-rise seats for eight. For bar seating, it’s surprisingly comfortable, and spacious enough so that you’re not knocking up against your neighbors. The only unfortunate element of the Chef’s Table design is that it’s meant to allow diners to watch the kitchen staff work, yet because of the bar’s height, all of the counter-top work and plating is hidden from sight. Only views of oven, the stovetop and the fryer are available – not exactly where all ‘the fun stuff’ happens! Despite being completely ignored by the kitchen staff for over 2 hours, the service was actually quite efficient and very friendly.

Of course, at a Chef’s Table, the emphasis on the food and not much else. The five-course meal at Hecho en Dumbo is elegant and tasty, though not mind-blowing. The progression was classic, starting with ceviche and ending with dessert. The official meal was preceded by an amuse bouche of a Wellfleet oyster on the half shell with an extremely spicy tomato soup ‘shot’ – the brine of the oyster, topped with a chunky salsa verde, and the sinus-clearing heat of the soup shot complemented each other beautifully and readied the taste buds for what was to come. The first course, a sea scallop ceviche perched atop a crispy tortilla with a generous swipe of creamy queso fresco and a thin slice of cucumber, was a study in textures. The crisp tortilla and crunch of cucumber contrasted with slippery ceviche was exciting; everything tasted so fresh and bright, it was a refreshing start to the meal. The second course was an interpretation of a classic octopus starter; the thick cuts of octopus were tossed with hearty florets of marinated caulflower in a generous drizzle of hot chorizo oil, which was so concentrated that it tasted exactly like bits of hearty chorizo; a Mexican surf n’ turf, this is a contender for favorite course of the night.

As someone not necessarily in love with fish, the third course, a grilled Spanish mackerel, was not my favorite. However, my friend Diana, a fish fan, argued that the preparation was just lovely – light, flaky, and moist – and that the accompaniments, including a silky celery root puree, balanced out the fishiness of the mackerel. In between the third and fourth courses, the kitchen offered a palate cleanser that almost stole the show from the prior three offerings. A lime and mezcal sorbet, this cleanser erased all the brine of seafood and tasted like a kicked-up frozen margherita; more please! With the fourth course, the meal took a turn for the richer, much to my delight. The kitchen delivered squab bathed in a bright orange pumpkin seed mole with a cactus souffle; the bird, while slightly difficult to eat elegantly, was perfectly cooked with a deep pink center and golden crispy exterior; the mole, a most unusual shade of orange, was complex and flavorful, with a hint of warm spice and some lingering heat. While the cactus souffle had very little flavor of its own, the lovely pale green hue looked lovely on the plate and the fluffy texture contrasted well with the meatiness of the squab. All in all, the fourth course was one of the most successful, striking a nice balance between familiar elements (bird, sauce, souffle) and surprising flavors.

The last course was absolutely the highlight of the night. A panna cotta made from Mexican chocolate and vanilla atop a hazelnut crisp and in a pool of house-made caramel and hibiscus creme anglaise, the dish was both beautiful and absurdly delicious. The panna cotta itself was just the right texture, firm and gelatinous, and the caramel was the type of stuff you would just want a bowl of to snack on. The swirl of pastel pink cream through the pool of caramel was stunning (and tasted great also). This dish was just about everything you could want out of a dessert course – bravo!

The Chef’s Table at Hecho en Dumbo is a little of a strange experience. On the one hand, the food is mostly very good. It isn’t excellent and it’s not the most innovative ‘show your stuff’ Chef’s Table out there, but its generally delicious. On the other hand, I could not stop asking myself: “why is this a Chef’s Table?” I couldn’t grasp the point behind it. The chefs weren’t animated; there were no cooking pyrotechnics; the food wasn’t blow-your-mind innovative. That being said, if you’re a fan of modern Mexican food and you’ve got an appetite, it’s hard to say no to a $55 five-course fine dining prix-fixe!

Perfect For: people who love to cook, foodie couples, a great prix-fixe value, adventurous eaters

Hecho En Dumbo  on Urbanspoon

Empellon: Mostly Missing Lowbrow Mexican

‘Trendy’ Mexican food seems to be a thing in New York these days, as evidenced by former wd-50 pastry chef Alex Stupak’s new Empellon and its predecessors Cascabel Tacqueria, Toloache, Dos Toros, Hecho en Dumbo and so forth. Whether or not this thing, usually a blend of dressed-up Mexican street food, fancy cocktail menus, and a casually elegant vibe, is successful depends on the restaurant, and unfortunately, Empellon struggles where others have triumphed.

On the suddenly red hot corner of West 4th and West 10th in the West Village, Empellon is pretty much like every other hip ‘neighborhoody’ restaurant in the area. It has fresh white walls, unadorned dark wooden tables, a backlit bar stocked with all sorts of fancy alcohols (mostly artisan tequilas here), rounded leather booths for groups, and the requisite gilt-framed mirror, you know, to make the room look bigger or whatever. Sure, it’s comfortable and charming, but this look is starting to get a little bit redundant (see: 10 Downing, Bistro de la Gare, Casa, Recette, Kingswood, and so on and so forth). I ask myself: why should I come here if there are carbon copies with different menus littered throughout the surrounding blocks?

Perhaps my beef with Empellon rests in that not only was the atmosphere ‘same old same old,’ but the food was wildly inconsistent. Some of what the kitchen produced was truly delicious, while other dishes were just plain bad. The guacamole is wonderful – the type of stuff you could eat every night with one of the bar’s stiff tequila or mezcal-based house cocktails. And its made even better by the two ‘salsas’ its served with – a smoked cashew sauce and a smoky arbol chile variety; both are distinctive and addictive. Yet, the tacos were over-priced at $12 each and almost inedible. The lamb barbacoa tacos, by far the most tasty sounding, were pretty awful – underseasoned lamb meat, a tough tortilla, horrible bits of bitter green olives that overpowered every other meek flavor in there. The chicken variety were better, though not by much; like the lamb barbacoa, the chicken was egregiously under-seasoned, and unfortunately, not even the little nuggets of green chorizo could save this dish.

Other non-taco dishes are better – the octopus marisco with parsnip and a lovely dressing of chipotle, sweet spices, and an unrefined sugar called piloncillo is well-cooked and an unusual spin on an octopus starter. The queso fundido options sound ridiculously good. I mean, how could you not salivate over a bowl of melted cheese served with warm tortillas? However, the execution was not as good as it could have been. I was imagining some sort of decadent Mexican fondue, and yet what I was delivered was a disappointingly small bowl of extremely concentrated pseudo-melted cheese that had hardened a bit too much. Its hard not to like melted cheese, and so, of course, I ate every bit of what was served; yet, at the end of the day, I would rather just go get some fondue at The Bourgeois Pig. The best part of the meal was the end of the meal. The bunuelos, a bowl of churros-like fried doughnut holes, are utterly incredible. Served with two sauces, a warm honey and an absurdly-delicious caramel-ish cajeta, these are like Pringles on steroids (once you pop, you just can’t stop). I could eat them every night, if I didn’t mind risking heart failure.

Empellon is fine; it’s not great and its not dreadful. Mostly, it just makes me miss low-brow Mexican fare from such favorites as Benny’s Burritos and Maryann’s Mexican. Why pay $12 for a crappy taco if you can pay half that for a scrumptious burrito or decadent plate of nachos at a less chi-chi spot? or perhaps a better question is, in a neighborhood as jam-packed with quality restaurants as the West Village, why pay exorbitant prices for mediocre food when those same prices will get you something amazing just down the street? That being said, if you’re only looking for some guac and awesome cocktails with your lady friends, Empellon is undoubtedly your spot.

Perfect For: guacamole and margheritas at the bar, ladies night out, west village locals

Empellon on Urbanspoon

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

El Centro on Urbanspoon

Maracas: Disco Balls, Maracas, and Birthday Shots

I’ll admit it – I’m on a cheap Mexican kick. Wait, who am I kidding? I’m always on a cheap Mexican kick, and lucky for me, I’ve got Maracas, Caliente Cab Co, and Benny’s Burritos within 4 blocks of my apartment. Now, these places don’t serve good food; it’s certainly not authentic. Yet, as we all know, there’s nothing like a heaving toppling platter of cheese-smothered nachos and a craptastic dish of enchiladas to complement your happy hour margherita.

Maracas Mexican Bar & Grill on Greenwich Ave is about as much of a party as it’s name would suggest. The expansive restaurant features every single kitschy piece of decor you’d expect, and really, you’d want to see. We’re talking sombrero hats, disco balls, crepe paper, cactus pictures, cheap Mexican art, and a lot of primary color usage. Wooden painted tables stand helter-skelter, easily moveable to accommodate large groups. Outside, an impressive number of tables allow for al fresco ‘dining’ (read: drinking with snacks) when the weather’s nice.

Perhaps the most entertaining part of the ‘decor’ is the hilariously rowdy crowd. Midtown yuppies looking for happy hour downtown mingle with locals craving salted margheritas who mingle with a suspicious number of birthday girls and their posses. All are drunk or on their way, and friends are made easily.

Maracas does have food, and some of it is better than you would expect. For example, the freshly ground guacamole is surprisingly refreshing; the nachos are more than satisfying with an acceptable cheese-to-chip ratio; and the chorizo quesadillas bring together successfully the winning combo of sausage, melty cheese, and tortilla. However, despite  these high notes, most of the cuisine is exactly what you would expect from a cheesy margherita bar: over-cooked, Americanized to the point of being almost unrecognizeably Mexican, and made with low quality ingredients.

Maracas is your quintessential crappy Mexican go-to; it’s a rollickin’ good time with cheap and strong drinks (could you even think of getting something other than a margherita?) and filling serviceable food. And just trust me on this one, you’ll want to tell them it’s your birthday…

Perfect For: celebrations, margherita mondays, pig-out sessions, guacamole cravings, ladies night out, large group dinners

Maracas Mexican Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Los Dados: ‘Comfort Food’ Meatpacking Style

While it can be ferociously debated whether or not you can actually have true ‘made-in-my-momma’s-kitchen’ style comfort food in the Meatpacking District, chef Sue Torres does her best to churn out tasty Mexican ‘comfort food’ that is still fashionable enough for the ‘hood.

Los Dados is hoppin’ on a Thursday night – packed with the ritzy downtown set, gaggles of well-dressed gay men, girls in platform high heels, and the occasional ‘normal’ family party. This is definitely a place to go with a group. The music is bumping, the crowds are crowding, the margheritas are flowing.

Situated on the corner of Gansevoort and Washington, Los Dados is slightly off to the side of Meatpacking’s core at Gansevoort and Hudson, yet it attracts the same chi-chi crowd and has the same scene-y look. Decorated (perhaps over-decorated), Los Dados embodies how New Yorkers would design a tiled ‘taqueria,’ over-flowing with spiky plants, expensive Mexican kitsch, and rust red tiles. The inside bar almost mimics a sort of Mexican tiki bar while the restaurant feels as though you’re stepping into a dressed-up hut, the type you would find on a 5-star resort – faux proletarian with all the top-notch amenities. In all honesty, Los Dados walks the fine line between tacky and fun.

As is to be expected for a Meatpacking restaurant swamped with oftentimes obnoxious New York eaters, Los Dados struggles on the service front. The hostess was supremely unhelpful and even tried to tell me that she couldn’t find my party when they called our name. We were at the bar…where she picks up everyone looking for a table…and where she asked us to sit originally. This ‘mishap’ led us to wait for another 15 minutes (on top of the 20 we already had, despite a reservation). Our waitress, while spritzy and fun, kept forgetting my margherita refill order. However, she did bring out the food and the check in rapid fashion.

The food was actually surprisingly good for a Mexican restaurant in a neighborhood starving for quality eats. The menu focuses on homestyle Mexican dishes such as tacos, enchiladas, and quesadillas. The guacamole was served in substantial portions and was a delicious start to the meal despite the absurd $10 price tag. In fact, each of these ‘comfort’ food dishes did not have comfortable prices. A steak quesadilla for $20? Fish tacos for $20? I’m used to mexican food sitting around the $10 price line. Regardless, if you’re willing to shell out, you won’t be disappointed. The ‘Al Pastor’ tacos with roasted pork and charred jalapeno-pineapple salsa were absolutely riveting. I couldn’t stop eating them, even when my soft taco shell disintegrated around me. The sweet pineapple and savory pork are a match made in heaven.

Los Dados is an ideal precursor to a night on the town – strong drinks, good and filling food, and hot music all come together in a vibrant and supremely fun setting. Fiesta Fiesta!

Los Dados on Urbanspoon