This week, NYC diners will gain access to one of LA’s most famous tacos straight from California pork phenom Carnitas El Momo. Amigo by Nai — a collaboration restaurant from chef Ruben Rodriguez of Spanish fine dining spot Nai Tapas and Carnitas El Momo co-owner Juan “Billy” Acosta — debuts today at 29 Second Avenue, between East First and Second streets, in the East Village.
“I really feel like we might shift a little bit of the perception of tacos and what people think,” says Rodriguez. The restaurant, which includes both a taqueria and an upscale cocktail bar, will sell six tacos to start that aim to bring together the best of Carnitas El Momo and Nai.
The restaurant’s headlining carnitas tacos ($6), from Acosta, comes in three meaty varieties: Maciza, or bone-in pork butt; buche, or pork stomach; cueritos, or pork skin; or diners can order a mix of all three on a taco. Carnitas tacos abound in the East Village, but this pork’s reputation is second to none: Eater LA ranks Carnitas El Momo’s version of carnitas as one of the city’s essential tacos, L.A. Taco calls it “a revelation,” and Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Bill Addison extolled its juicy wonders in a glowing review last year.
Digging into his background at Nai, Rodriguez came up with another four tacos that are informed by dishes at the fine dining restaurant, including a shawarma-roasted cauliflower taco with an avocado lime chimichurri ($7), and a Spanish twist on a birria taco using 36-hour roasted oxtail, paired with a red mojo sauce, shishito peppers, and a side of consommé ($8).
There’s also a signature collaboration taco on the menu dubbed Amigo ($7) that pulls from both chefs’ backgrounds. It features pork belly that has been marinated for up to 36 hours in garlic, parsley, and other traditional Spanish ingredients, then roasted in white wine. The meat is then slicked with Rodriguez’s sweet citrus gastrique that he uses in the kitchen at Nai, and finally sprinkled with flecks of a spicy sauce from Acosta that packs a punch. “It’s kind of like, ‘Who the hell does that?’” Rodriguez says. “It’s such a weird way to eat a taco. I really do believe that [the flavor profile] is going to shock a lot of people.”
The restaurant is also selling all of its meats for takeout and delivery by the pound, packaged as a self-assembly taco kit with tortillas and sauces on the side.
A cocktail menu, led by beverage director Niko Hagerty, will also be available for takeout starting today. The playful drinks include the Puss In Boots, a mezcal and tequila cocktail paired with elderflower, bee pollen, and jalapeño, and What Happened to 8th Street, a wasabi-infused scotch number balanced with seaweed, sesame oil, and lemon, among other ingredients. The cocktails range from $12 to $16 apiece.
For now, diners will be able to walk inside and order tacos from a counter overlooking the open kitchen in the back. Ten tables will be set up outside for casual seating options. For indoor dining, which won’t start until the current capacity restrictions are lifted, Rodriguez plans to run the front of the restaurant as a swanky cocktail bar where customers will be able to order drinks and tapas.
The NYC restaurant may have just opened today, but Acosta and Rodriguez are already betting that the tacos will be a hit with customers and they’ve put money behind ambitious expansion plans for the restaurant. There’s a second Amigo by Nai outpost in LA currently in the works, Rodriguez says, and they are planning another location in Madrid, with hopes to expand across the U.S. after that.
Separate from the Amigo by Nai project, Rodriguez has another collaboration restaurant planned for the East Village with other well-regarded industry veterans. He has started construction on a retail-slash-restaurant concept in partnership with the Chi Sum Ngai and Kaleena Teoh of Coffee Project, which neighbors Nai on East 5th Street. Customers will be able to wander through the restaurant “like an apartment,” Rodriguez says, with coffee service up front in a room set up like a retail shop, and an intimate, vegetable-focused restaurant set up in the back room.
Rodriguez acknowledges that it’s been tough to execute on opening plans during the pandemic — he characterized the logistics of getting Amigo by Nai open as an “absolute nightmare” of stressful construction delays — but he’s plowing ahead regardless.
“The reason why I’m choosing to do these collaborations — and the reason why I’m kind of moving forward — is that this is sort of like the restructuring of New York City,” Rodriguez says. “So it’s almost like, let’s make it the best that we can make it. And let’s start building the future.”
Amigo by Nai will be open Monday through Thursday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 12 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. Delivery is available through the restaurant’s website.