We like April Bloomfield. My favorite burger in the city is the blue cheese burger at The Spotted Pig and The Breslin reigns as one of ATO’s favorite places to chill and grub in the city. But we might actually like April Bloomfield a little bit less after trying her self-admittedly unauthentic new taqueria in Murray Hill, Salvation Taco (so named because the space previously housed a Salvation Army store). You’ll definitely find no salvation in these tacos…. or any of the food for that matter.
The only saving grace: the food is pretty cheap. Not like taco truck cheap (not like taco truck good either), but definitely a step down price-wise from her other joints. Here’s a spin through a majority of the menu:
Chips and guacamole. Only standard in taste but hard on the wallet at $9 a serving!
Crispy chicken feet. Stingy on substance, full of cartilage and overly-aggressive in flavor.
Tomatillo and jicama salad - simple, bright and fresh. A pleasant break from the abuses of the other dishes.
Crispy pig ears. Appeared to be the same mix used on the crispy chicken feet, but these pig ears were gummier, chewier and quite a mouthful (which ATO preferred to the chicken feet). Expect to find pig ear stuck in your teeth hours after consuming….
Al pastor quesadilla. Tasty and nicely grilled, but nothing to write home about.
Kimchi pork belly pozole. In my opinion, this was the best dish on the menu. Hearty and complex, savory and addictive. The lime added a great crisp finish.
The tacos! From left to right: roasted cauliflower with curried crema, skirt steak with pecan and chipotle and Moroccan lamb on naan. The roasted cauliflower was my personal favorite. The rest were OK but not great.
The torta sandwiches, which all in all were disappointing and suffered from excessive salt, a want of texture and bad bread. Above is the grilled lamb tongue torta. The texture of this sandwich was especially off-putting.
Braised short rib torta. Mushy short ribs and mushy avocado = mushy sandwich.
Confit chicken thigh. Weirdly sweet, but not so bad in the end.
As is readily apparent, it wasn’t for lack of effort that we couldn’t find something on the menu that we really liked. Oh well, checked the box; now off the list forever!
Nopalito (San Francisco)
Big sister restaurant, Nopa, is “a San Francisco gathering spot” (whatever that means) known for its great organic, wood-fired rustic American/Mediterranean cuisine. Nopalito is the more casual, cheaper sidekick: the concept behind it was to serve “staff meals”, the type of food that the kitchen staff makes for itself, which in this case was apparently authentic traditional Mexican fare. And because we’re in SF, everything is made from sustainable, local and organic ingredients. Ahhh.
No doubt this place is not expensive. Nothing costs more than $16. But in my research I found its name mentioned in a few “cheap eats” lists. To me, the words “cheap Mexican food” conjure up images of grimy, hole-in-the-walls serving greasy $2 tacos, and this certainly isn’t that. Instead, this joint is bright, colorful and clean, and was bumping with baby strollers and dogs parked outside on this sunny Saturday afternoon (just like the UWS!). I was a bit surprised (and maybe disappointed) when I first caught a glimpse of the restaurant, and my initial reaction was to question Nopalito’s authenticity (apparently others have as well, throwing around allegations of “gringo” Mexican food). However, once the food started coming, all of my fears were assuaged: everything from the tortillas to the masa to the mole was made from scratch. This is certainly no Chevy’s….this is the real deal. And given the level of workmanship, the quality of the fresh ingredients and the stellar prices, you sure can’t find anything quite like it in NYC.
Some classic drinks to start: here we have the organic almond horchata. Reminded me of the cashew nut milk that BPC sells!
And the Michelada! Beer, lime juice, tomato juice and various spices. Savory yet refreshing.
The totopos con chile were the first to be served: tortilla chips topped with salsa de arbol, cotija cheese, crema and lime. Dang these were good. We were all starving by the time they arrived, and we quickly gobbled them all up.
Next up, another appetizer to share: the quesadilla roja con chicharron, which was a chili-corn tortilla filled with crispy pork belly, salsa cascabel, jack cheese, queso fresco, onions and cilantro. Dude, these appetizers reeeaaallly hit the spot (and I’d have to say that in general, they were better than the larger dishes, although admittedly we were hungrier when these arrived). Mmmmm this was my favorite starter!
Our final shared plate, the panucho de pollo al pibil: a tortilla topped with black beans and citrus-achiote chicken, cabbage, pickled red onions and salsa habanera.
Moving on to the larger plates. Chilaquiles rojos en cazuela: tortilla chips, guajillo and chipotli chilies, tomato, egg, green onion, crema and queso fresco. A tasty mix of ingredients, but it was missing that “homey, tasty leftovers” feel that you want from chilaquiles. In terms of chilaquiles in SF, GW had had better.
GW also ordered a side of the toasted sweet corn, cotija cheese, chile, lime, crema and pico de gallo de tomate cereza to accompany his main. Super super smoky. Like to the point where we were questioning whether that was the intent, or whether they had just burned the corn a bit!
Carnitas: pork braised in orange, bay leaf, milk cinnamon and beer, served with cabbage salad, pickled jalapenos and salsa de tomatillo. The taste of this dish did not match the looks. I was drooling over my neighbor’s plate of carnitas when we first walked in, but they didn’t live up to their visual appeal. They weren’t bad by any means, but they were a bit under seasoned and lackluster in general.
The enchiladas de mole con pollo: a mole sauce made of chilies, chocolate and nuts, served over shredded chicken with tortillas, onion, queso fresco and refried pinquito beans. So when I think of mole I think of the Rick Bayless version which was served to me at Topolobampo. And then no other mole can compare. This one, unfortunately, also fell victim to that high standard. It was too mild on the spices and the savory tones and too heavy on the chocolate - I do not want dessert served on my chicken!
Finally, my machaca de camaron con huevo y salsa: smashed shrimp mixed in scrambled eggs with serrano peppers, tomatoes, onions and cilantro, and served with refried black beans and salsa ligera de jitomate. This was the type of dish that grows on you, bite after bite. And even with all of that salsa and other (yummy) distractions, you really could still taste the natural flavor of that shrimp!
To end our lunch, the complimentary polvorones: sugar-dusted Mexican wedding cookies. Chomp! Now just need to find a way to digest this before dinner in 5 hours!
Tito’s Tacos (Los Angeles)
A nostalgic haunt of ATO’s in his UCLA days, we check in to Tito’s Tacos every time we’re in LA. It’s super cheap ($2.35 per taco with cheese), no-frills, guilty pleasure Mexican food. For me, it’s also asking for a tummy ache…. but I go for it with guns blazing anyway. It’s worth it.
Lunch is served! 5 delicious shredded beef tacos (hidden in a neon yellow mound of sliced cheddar cheese), served with shredded iceberg in a fresh corn taco shell. Accompanied by the complimentary watery but pure tomato salsa, crispy chips and this time, the refried pinto beans (a genius discovery).
Taco, up close and personal. Crunch! Nom nom.
Los Dos Amigos (Houston)
We were in Houston this weekend for a wedding (congrats SL and AC!), and I was dead set on visiting somewhere blog-worthy. After some not-so-quick research and some further indecision, we settled on Los Dos Amigos in “The Heights”, off of Washington Ave. Why? It was consistently lauded as serving the best enchiladas in Houston and was listed on Houston’s Eater 38. The Houston Press even went so far as to call their cheese enchiladas served with 2 fried eggs (picture above) the ”best dish” in Houston. Dang. That’s some hype.
I should preface this post by saying a great Mexican place for me is like a slightly better version of a Taco Bell. Needless to say, I don’t have sophisticated or authentic taste for Mexican food. I ordered the “dinner combo #1”, even though this was lunch, and was thrilled when an enormous fried cheesy mess of a plate was set in front of me (picture above). Said plate held two enchiladas (one beef, one chicken), a beef taco and a large chip covered in cheese sauce sitting atop rice and beans. A not-so-little bowl of condiments came on the side. When a dish involves sour cream, guacamole and nacho cheese sauce smothering refried beans, ground beef and tortilla chips, it is always a hit with me: I love when all those wonderful junky ingredients fill each bite, and it all just ends up tasting like one indistinguishable heap of yummy mush. And despite the fact that serving sizes in Texas really are bigger (my ridiculously large platter should have been able to feed a family of 4), I finished the whole damn thing and was very happy with myself, and my meal. Yes, I regretted that for the rest of the day. Getting into my cocktail dress later that evening was an embarrassing gymnastics and breath control routine that I’d rather forget.
Unfortunately, my 4 dining companions had higher standards. Their reactions ranged from, “nothing special” to ”mediocre cheap Mexican joint you can find anywhere” to “Mexican food in California is so much better” to “disappointing” to just plain “not good.” DD kept trying to think about how it could have been better: “if it was just more spicy” or “if it just had more flavor”, to which the most bitter in the group, DG, responded “you shouldn’t have to order flavor.” Touche. I mean, even I can recognize that this shouldn’t be on anyone’s list of “best of….”. I just happen to have a different stomach for this type of food: sometimes, a Big Mac can be just as, if not more, satisfying than a Minetta Black Label Burger… sometimes you just don’t want Grimaldi’s and a freakin slice of Papa John’s dipped in some viscous garlic butter really hits the spot… and yes, there are times when I’d choose a meal at Bennigans over a meal at Jean Georges. And that is probably why I was the only one who thoroughly enjoyed my meal. Oh well, you can’t please them all!
The one thing I really miss about my old firm is the cafeteria. It was awesome: oh how I still crave the “FIT” turkey chili and miss the creativity of the make-your-own sandwich line or the excitement of quesadilla day, not to mention the subsidized prices (although it’s really gross that a recent February 2nd inspection cited 25 health code violations - yeeesh!). But the one thing that the cafeteria ingrained in me is the need to never leave the building to get lunch. Which is why, almost 8 months later at my new firm, I still don’t leave the building for lunch. I buy the same pre-made slimy turkey sandwich at the small Cucina & Co outpost in our lobby almost every freakin day. It’s pretty embarrassing. I thought I’d never get sick of it. I can really eat a sh*t ton of turkey sandwiches and be OK. But that day has come.
So I’m trying to make an effort to branch out and broaden my horizons. I am now willing to walk within a 5 block radius of work for lunch (well, maybe just once a week, but I’ll venture within 2 blocks for the other days)! One of my recent happy discoveries is Pampano Taqueria. It’s just a counter in the basement of a midtown east office building, so not the best ambiance, but good enough. For about $10 bucks, I got 3 tacos and a bag of chips. And while they’re not the best tacos in Manhattan, they’re definitely worth walking 5 blocks for! They’re simple but yummy. And they don’t feel too heavy for lunch. I had the alambre with grilled chicken, poblano rajas and melted cheese, the carne asada and the shrimp with black bean puree. There are also tortas (Mexican sandwiches), burritos and quesadillas. And a whole counter full of toppings (yay!). Very satisfied, and so much better than a pre-made turkey sandwich. Maybe I’ll eat here every day for 8 straight months now….
The owners of the popular Empellon Taqueria in the West Village bring us Empellon Cocina, an upscale sister restaurant, in the East Village. ATO said we had to check it out before it was discovered, so we went the week after it opened. It was solid, with some dishes being significantly better than others, but we were a bit shocked at how high the bill ended up being, although not so surprising if you really study the menu ($15 - $20 for each small plate). My personal favorite was the crab with parsnip juice and crab flan (above). It was also served with some cashew cream. It was light, delicate, flavorful and all around delicious. ATO’s favorite was the squid with chorizo mayo and block mole (not pictured). We had high hopes for the sea urchin mousse and ruby red shrimp on crisp masa curlicues (below) but ATO didn’t think the sea urchin taste was strong enough, and I was too full to enjoy any food at that point!
We were in Chicago to eat. We had to try a Rick Bayless restaurant, especially after watching him kick butt on Top Chef Masters. We made a dinner reservation at Topolobampo, the upscale sister restaurant to the better known Frontera Grill. Topolobampo offered 3 different tasting menus (if you fly to Chicago to eat, you better be ordering the tasting menu). I went for the Topolo Classics menu, while ST and ATO went for the Persistent Flavors menu, which only used “Pre-Columbian ingredients in a modern kitchen.” AN had the Market to Table, seasonable ingredients menu. The Persistent Flavors menu was definitely the coolest in concept. What if Columbus never came to America in 1492? What if the Aztec ingredients were the only ingredients available to you? Imagine a menu with no flour, no sugar, no butter, no garlic, no cheese, no pork and no beef. Imagine that menu being phenomenal. It was. And apparently there were plenty of things to eat back in the early 1400’s: Cortez blue shrimp with buttery avocado, chia caviar and salt-cured cactus, corn masa ravioli with huitlacoche, inky corn mushrooms and sweet corn chipotle sauce, rainbow trout wrapped in a hoja santa with wild mushrooms and tomatillo-pumpkinseed sauce, wild boar (pictured below) with a cocoa, ground pecan and chili pasilla mole and even chocolate tabasco cake with avocado pudding and crunchy cocoa nibs!
Honestly, despite the coolness factor of this menu, I still preferred my Topolo Classics menu. It started with these tacos you made with crunchy threads of beef brisket, crispy onion strings and garlicky guacamole in cilantro tortillas. It’s not so photogenic (below), but it was great. ATO thought it was the best thing he tried all night, and chewed with his eyes closed and a smile on his lips, a sure sign that something is unbelievably good. The next course was a refreshing tomato soup, a perfect next stop after the tacos.
My 3rd course was the mojo-poached Maine lobster with black and white mojo, black and white rice, guajillo jewels and verdolagas. So earthy and comforting.
Finally, the last course, the big punch in the face: the ribeye in Rick Bayless’ famous 29 ingredient black mole with market vegetable budin, marrow braised radishes and black bean tamalon. Whoa. Truly incredible. Totally speechless. There’s really no way to describe a mole with 29 ingredients - I just don’t have the vocabulary. It’s just crazy good!! And then there was a dessert (steamed lemongrass-poached coconut tamal cake with peach gummy candies and coconut bubbles!)- if I recall, it was awesome, but I don’t remember it because my thoughts are still with the mole. Worth flying to Chicago just for this meal? Absolutely. This was definitely one of the best meals I’ve had, and hands-down the best Mexican restaurant I’ve ever been to. Who knew the God of upscale Mexican cuisine was a white guy from Oklahoma?