Reservations are made at Casa Enrique the old-fashioned way, by phone. Not a problem. So you ring the restaurant. No one picks up. You try again. And you're greeted with this message: "Please enter your remote access code." Alas, you roll the dice as a walk-in. The room is as crowded as Balthazar. "Hour wait," the host says. You watch the barmen sling blueberry mojitos two at a time. You stand for 10 minutes before seeing a cocktail list. You look up; a flatscreen on your left shows Real Madrid playing. A pull down projection screen on your right provides double sports coverage. Your phone buzzes. It's the host calling from four feet away. This can't be one of our best Mexican restaurants, you declare. Rest assured, it is.
Chef Cosme Aguilar is why you're here. He assembles tacos with the care of a sushi chef, wrapping ethereal tortillas around minimally adorned proteins. He forges inky moles whose flavors never end; they'd make even the hautiest saucier jealous. And as the culinary world focuses its south-of-the-border attention on the surgically-constructed plates and higher prices of Manhattan's Empellon Cocina or Cosme, Long Island City's more affordable Casa Enrique hovers at the edge of the limelight, like an underdog indie band with a cult following.
That following, both critical and popular, is growing. Zagat voters named Casa Enrique the city's top Mexican spot. And the restaurant remains New York's only Mexican establishment with a Michelin star, an honor on display in the form of a plaque hanging between its two television screens. Is there any other Michelin-starred venue that shows sports with such regularity? Surely not. I'll argue those devices make Casa Enrique an entirely cooler place to dine, especially in this cord-cutting era wherein TV at home means streaming Netflix on a MacBook, and wherein Monday Night Football involves finding a bar with the least terrible food.
So swing by Casa Enrique, a shorter subway ride from Midtown than most Brooklyn (or East Village) restaurants, and watch as the Giants lose over a plate of cochinito chiapeneco. Tender pork ribs, braised in a mild blend of guajillo chiles, pay homage to Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost region, where Aguilar was raised. That largely impoverished territory, famous for its tamales, restrained levels of heat, and blue-collar ingredients like armadillo, iguana, and lowland paca, serves more as light inspiration for Casa Enrique's menu rather than a culinary bible. Translation: Expect a fairly standard menu of Mexican fare.
Are Aguilar's preparations worthy of a Michelin star? You bet they are.
Are Aguilar's preparations worthy of a Michelin star? You bet they are. Still, that award highlights an incongruity central to understanding not just Casa Enrique but the larger state of Big Apple Mexican food: virtually all of the city's Michelin-starred French restaurants are pricey venues serving refined wares, while the only Mexican spot on that list is a rustic spot selling most dishes for under $20. That dichotomy plays to the dangerous narrative that cuisines from more developed countries are supposed to be expensive, while those from humbler regions are supposed to be cheap. Of course, the more open-minded way of looking at things is that Casa Enrique's accessible menu isn't any better or worse than the more creative offerings of Cosme or Empellon Cocina. If anything, the fact that all three venues are reasonably crowded is a sign New Yorkers crave just as much gastronomic and price diversity from their Mexican food as they do from their regional Italian fare.
I'm tempted to wax poetic about the mole right now but that would be like revealing The Goonies’ triumphant finale before explaining the unfortunate fate of Chester Copperpot. So, some bad news first: Service isn’t very good at Casa Enrique. Salsas don’t always appear. Items never sent out by the kitchen take longer than reasonable to be removed from the bill. And you can wait virtually an entire course for a waiter to ferry over even the simplest Cuba libre or margarita. That said, here’s what to order (and what to avoid):
Ensalada de Betabel: A mix of julienned beets and mint. Sounds boring, but Aguilar electrifies the affair with lemon vinaigrette. He aromatizes it with mint. Never has a salad of root vegetables so closely mimicked the vibrance of a German riesling.
Ceviche: Too often, this peasant dish is a synonym for expensive sashimi anointed with a spritz of citrus. Props to Aguilar for bringing it back to basics, using fruit acid to cook his fluke and turn the exterior white. The piscine flesh practically explodes with the tropical perfumes of lime. Your tongue tingles from the pain of chile.
Menudo: Mexico’s official hangover cure, served only at brunch, when natural light floods the garden room, and when civilized fútbol fans day drink at the bar. The stomach soup is as viscous as Thanksgiving gravy. Take a sip and feel your insides glow; ancho chile is the portable generator responsible for that sensation. Feel your lips stick to each other as you eat. That’s from the natural gelatins of the beef feet. Take a charred tortilla and make yourself a tripe taco. All better now?
Cocktail de Camarones: An average pile of tiger shrimp in a run-of-the-mill tomato sauce. Sell.
Pozole: Pork hominy soup laced with the delicate sweetness of good oregano and the gentle musk of pulled pork. Pair with a Pacifico and there’s your one-bowl meal on a cold winter night.
Fried Oysters: Over-fried. Sell.
Tacos: Judiciously stuffed, austerely garnished, and fairly priced at $10 for two. Aguilar’s al pastor tacos, with agrodolce pineapple taming the crimson pork, and fragrant cilantro awakening your senses, rank among the city’s finest. His fish tacos — crispy fried bass — could pass muster at a high-end tempura joint. And his lengua tacos knock it out of the park; corn tortillas provide just enough texture to counterbalance the marshmallow-softness of the tongue.
Chamorro de Borrego Al Huaxamole: Lamb shank braised in chile de puya, a mild pepper similar to guajillo. Nothing too complicated here, just gentle warmth and musky, fall apart meat.
Carne Asada: A seriously large portion of skirt steak marinated in tequila, garlic, and lime. The medium rare product costs just $23 and easily feeds two. If only more NYC restaurants could find a way to serve good beef at such an accessible price.
Mole de Piaxtla: The pride of Puebla, the reason you've come to Casa Enrique. Aguilar takes almonds, raisins, sweet plantains, sesame seeds, seven different chiles, and chocolate, toasts everything, cooks it for four hours, and uses the tar-like mixture to smother a chicken. The flavors are extraordinary – the nutty sweetness hits you first, before giving way to a complex bitterness, followed by a peppery heat that lingers for twenty seconds. Cost: $18.
Horchata: Boasts a coarser mouthfeel than is typical for the traditional agua fresca, practically giving it the consistency of a rice pudding smoothie. It’s as sweet as frosting so let the ice dilute things a bit.
Cost: Nothing over $26. Most dishes under $20.
Sample dishes: Guacamole, ceviche de pescado, tongue tacos, al pastor tacos, pozole, mole de piaxtla, pot de creme, flan.
What to drink: Beer, margaritas.
Bonus tip: Reservationists do in fact answer the phones, but only after 4pm for the most part.