Not a great deal of Mexican food was consumed on this New York visitation other than these few places; and a revisit to Tehuitzingo for an el-cheapo dinner.
Whilst it may not appear to be your average Mexican eatery from the outside, all you need to do is scratch the surface and perhaps step out the back, and then things will appear a tad more south-of-the-border. Cafe de la Esquina's home is a former 1950's diner, all glistening with shiny steel and neon.
On arrival we're told they're quite busy but could sit out the back at the counter. Oddly, as we walk through the diner compartment I spot a sea of empty seats, except for one that was taken at the bar. Busy?
Once outside on our stools, sitting up at the windows counter felt like sitting at a food truck, bathed in an orange glow from lights strung over the courtyard. Yes the scene is all fabricated, but it works.
Thanks to an afternoon of boozing and grazing at The Pines backyard, we didn't have much of an appetite; settling on a few dishes rather than several. Some pretty decent carnitas (9) lumped with pork, onion, coriander and salsa macha. The tacos were ok.
I ordered some platanos machos fritos (5), but somehow ended up with a bowl of flavourless beans, greens and tomato. I couldn't be bothered rectifying the situation as getting the servers attention was proving to be challenging. I can only imagine the fried plantain topped with salsa verde and queso fresco would have been better than the bland bowl of veg I received.
The flavour improved with my carne asada (19), a plate loaded with perfectly grilled skirt steak, grilled cactus, guacamole and rice. The guanciale it was meant to come with was playing peek-a-boo, as I couldn't find it anywhere. Once again, it was easier to just eat what was there rather than try to flag down a server.
I guess the girl that ushered us in was right about them being busy. Perhaps she was referring to themselves, as there weren't enough people to serve all the drinkers and diners.Cafe de la Esquina225 Wythe AvenueWilliamsburg 11211718 939 5500website
On the other side of Williamsburg is another Mexican eatery that has a more polished appearance and fancy-looking food that claims to use its grandmothers recipes. Sounds good enough to me.
We relished the cucumber margarita's, made with jalapeño-infused tequila. Refreshingly boozy!
Take a look at that cheese! That would be the nopal asado (8), or grilled cactus. Earthy flavours, soft textures, stringy Oaxacan cheese, strips of mildly-spiced pablano pepper and cream. Loved it.
They didn't mess around with the quantity of taco topping when it came to de cochinita pibil (10). It fact there was almost too much of the braised pulled pork, cooked with achiote. As you lift it to your mouth you instantly have a stream of annatto-coloured juice running down your fingers or chin, as you go in for the chomp. Thanks to the habanero on top there's a hum of chilli left on the lips, plus there's avocado, red onions and pickled orange.
One of the house signatures is the chiles en nogada (18) which sounds intriguing on paper, but rather confusing on the palate. Roasted poblano pepper stuffed with shredded pork, chicken, peaches, pear, apple, almonds, walnut sauce and pomegranate. Sounds like one of the grandmothers was close to finishing a bottle of tequila when she decided to create this one, right?
Without the walnut sauce, the combination is actually really good. A muddle of textures that requires minimal chewing. Now, that sauce. I didn't quite get the walnut flavour, but what my tongue did pick up on in the creamy sauce was vanilla and quite a bit of sugar. Fresh raspberries replaced the promised pomegranate. Interesting, to say the least, but I liked it and finished it.
This next dish wasn't as sweet as the poblano pepper. Costillas en adobo (18) - a delicious pile of slow-cooked adobo marinated pork ribs. Rice and re-fried beans come with. I loved this one. The hunks of tender flesh are coated in a thick salsa of smokey guajillo pepper and discs of roasted chayote topped with melted Oaxacan cheese. It's also known as Mexican squash, and for us Aussies and Kiwi's, you'd know it as that weed that grew over your neighbours fence. Choko.
No time for dessert. I'm stuffed.Mesa Coyoacan372 Grayham AvenueWilliamsburg 11211718 712 8170website
Over in NoLita in the city is Tacombi (taco - combi. Geddit?), another fabricated place where you can binge on tacos and wash them down with chilled cerveza. The scene is a garage littered with metal backgammon tables with a drinks station at the front, a combi van/kitchen to the side and another kitchen at the rear. It feels a little Vegas but it was the food I was curious about. Not the theatrical surroundings.
A couple of tostadas swiftly make it to the table. Shrimp aguachile (5.95), prepared ceviche-style and lumped onto a crisp tortilla with avocado and pickled red onion. It's a messy thing to eat, but that's what it's all about. The other one is a ceviche tostada (5.49), sitting on guacamole with cucumber and chilli powder. The white fish has been marinated in orange juice, a step away from the usual lime or lemon juice.
Next we have a trio of tacos. Pork belly (5.49) - all juicy and fatty with radish and melon. Crispy fish (4.49) - two very large pieces of fried fish that aren't crispy at all, some mayo and a mountain of shredded red cabbage. Seared Vercruzana fish (4.49) topped with a tomato, garlic and olive sauce. This was my favourite.
Not a bad lunch!Tacombi at Fonda NoLita267 Elizabeth StreetNoLita 10012917 727 0179website