Cosme and Atla landed with a big splash a few years back, instantly changing our city’s ideas about Mexican restaurants — and in their wake comes newcomer Tacos Güey. Previously, upscale establishments like Rosa Mexicano and Zarela generally concentrated on regional recipes that strove for an anthropological authenticity.
But suddenly in 2014 Enrique Olivera brought us fine dining with Mexico City flair. Cosme put the chef’s creations on its menu, and embroidered familiar dishes with unexpected ingredients, vastly expanding the canon of Mexican food in New York City. And Atla, under Daniela Soto-Innes, added its own set of revolutionary notions at a lower price, in an atmosphere that soon enabled a new wave of casual, inventive, (and frankly costlier) Mexican cafes.
Enter Tacos Güey three weeks ago on 19th Street just west of Fifth Avenue, replicating some of the Atla vibe. Focusing equally on tacos and ceviches, chef Henry Zamora is a veteran of French Laundry, Quince, and many other restaurants, but had never professionally explored the Mexican food of his home in California’s Salinas Valley. Needless to say, he has at his disposal a wealth of local and international ingredients.
The restaurant’s logo is a Statue of Liberty clutching a taco. Covered in brick with charcoal-gray trim, the interior has raised tables with backless stools in the front, and more formal ones opposite a bar in the rear. Behind a banquette, recessed fixtures immerse diners’ heads in a halo of light, while bright linear ceiling fixtures look like they might have been borrowed from a classroom. For most of the day, Tacos Güey is a place where you can actually see your food; after that hour, a darker and loungier atmosphere prevails.
The section of the menu called “mariscos” lists five preparations ($18 to $21) that perfectly cover the territory of raw seafood on both coasts of Mexico. I tried every one, and there wasn’t a dud among them. But my favorite was a scallop aguachile that exploited the inherent sweetness of the finely cubed shellfish, immersing it in a greenish oil tasting faintly of mint. A surprise ingredient was finger lime, native to Australia – pinkie-size citrus with outsize vesicles, the individual sacs bursting periodically in your mouth with an explosion of tart flavor. This is carefully engineered food at its best.
It was served on a handsome ceramic plate, while paradoxically, the scallop’s shell was used as a vessel for a sea bass ceviche. The raw morsels of this local fish came tossed with gooseberries. These are not the green gooseberries one often finds in the farmers markets, but a husk cherry — one form of gooseberry — that paints the ceviche with sweet orange brush strokes. Chile oil sharpens the flavor, and, with the fish positioned on a mountain of crushed ice, eating it made me feel like I was lounging on a floaty in the arctic.
Tuna crudo is the simplest of the raw seafood preparations, dicing the bright red flesh with serrano peppers, squirting green beads of guacamole around it. Meanwhile, surprisingly tender surf clams show up in a tomatoey Spanish escabeche, further flavored with Meyer lemon. Finally, there’s a prawn ceviche in a dark green sauce of tomatillo and yuzu, juxtaposing Mexican and Japanese flavors.
The tacos (two for $15 to $20), in six varieties, are almost equally exciting. They feature excellent corn tortillas made on the premises, probably thinner and more delicate than any you’ve eaten before. This means they can’t really be slathered with braising juices before the tacos birria are assembled, making it all the more imperative that they be dipped in the accompanying consommé. Don’t worry, they won’t fall apart despite the thinness of the tortillas. The meat itself is pungent shredded lamb, rather than beef, to which I can only say, Bravo!
Fish tacos are another necessity on a menu presenting the greatest hits of tacodom, and these are simple but good, with a salsa crudo rojo that looks like ketchup, but proves to be nothing like it. The carne asado tacos feature a good hunk of steak, while vegetarians will especially enjoy the mushroom taco, featuring supple maitakes. The Veracruz-style salsa macha, containing dried chiles, seeds, and nuts, is a bumpy ride of a sauce.
Other antojitos include husk-wrapped brisket tamales, and squat and squarish pork-belly sopes that I didn’t particularly like — the swatch of bacon on top seemed like a precarious afterthought and made them hard to eat. Wonderful potato-stuffed flautas were cracklingly crisp and offered with guac, spiced crema, and a dark red salsa, and sprinkled with queso seco. Man, were they good!
As might be expected, the menu is propelled by cocktails ($16), with ingredients that sometimes leave you scratching your head. My favorite, the gringito, featured tequila, avocado, maize, serrano chiles, limón, and basil. A more ungainly combination can hardly be imagined, but somehow it worked.
Then there are three larger plates intended for sharing, presumably while drinking. The pork ribs ($35) were the only one I tried, a half-rack nicely roasted, but with a meager dribble of green sauce that reminded me of mole verde. The proportion of meat to sauce was all wrong, and though it came accompanied by tortillas, those were hard to deploy since the meat clung tenaciously to the bones, and I longed for some rice.
While great Mexican restaurants are multiplying on every side and in every price range, Tacos Güey manages to distinguish itself with a laid-back atmosphere, a list of enjoyable cocktails, but most especially its cheffy ceviches, and some delicious tacos that taste like none other in the city.