While New York’s collection of Mexican fare has only gotten better the past few years — with its Baja fish tacos, Yucatan cochinita pibil, Oaxacan mole amarillo, and Guerrero pozole verde — we could have used another restaurant or two representing the port city of Veracruz. Now we have them: With the opening of Casa Carmen in Tribeca and, more recently, in Flatiron, Manhattan is home to destination worthy spots that highlight dishes from Veracruz.
Casa Carmen is named after Carmen Ramírez Degollado — known as Titita — an 84-year-old Mexico City restaurateur who runs one of the most recognized restaurants in Mexico City, what started as El Bajio and has become a chain. She was born in Xalapa, the inland capital of Veracruz state and is celebrated for her labor-intensive homestyle regional cooking. (Back in the day, chefs like Ferran Adrià of El Bulli in Spain, said of the original restaurant, “El Bajío, without any doubt, is the best restaurant of Mexican cuisine that I have been in in my life.”)
Fast forward many openings and more than a decade later, two of her grandchildren, Sebastián Ramírez Degollado and Santiago Ramírez Degollado, have opened Casa Carmen, a homage to their grandmother, first at 114 Franklin Street, near East Broadway, in April 2022; then in June 2023, the pair debuted a second restaurant with the same name at 5 W. 21st Street, near Fifth Avenue.
I recently visited both, and the decor is nearly identical. Both are comfortable and cavernous premises with a faint bronze glow, lined with barro negro clay pots from Oaxaca. The newer Flatiron space is a string of rooms leading deep into the interior, including some seating open to the street, while its Tribeca predecessor is a buttoned-up loft, with the barroom and dining room barely separated and a wall of windows at the end providing a view of greenery.
The menus, too, are nearly identical. While many Mexican restaurants in town offer some variation on red snapper Veracruz, the city’s signature dish ($35) here is different by a mile. A crisp-skinned branzino filet, in a sauce of sliced tomatoes, green olives, and caperberries, is as fresh as an ocean breeze with no chiles in sight.
Another unique dish with Veracruzano style is pollo con mole Xico ($28), attributed to a small town southwest of Xalapa, with a mole unique in its nuttiness and fruitiness. (I’m tasting prunes here.) It features a leg and thigh accompanied by yellow rice so good you might eat it first. If necessary, request more tortillas to sop up every drip of that sauce.
One Spanish-inflected dish from Veracruz is fideo seco ($15), a puck of delicate noodles dressed with avocados, crema, and Cotija cheese. But my favorite dish is garnachas orizabeñas, which references Orizaba, a mountain town famous for its volcano and its art nouveau palace. This market snack consists of four corn tortillas lightly fried, saturated with a light salsa verde, and topped with potatoes and shredded brisket, earthy and delicious.
The menu also features dishes from other regions of Mexico. Highlights for me were huauzontles ($29), an herb native to Mexico often seen here in bodegas, consisting of tiny clustered seed pods on long stems. The flavor is slightly bitter, and at Casa Carmen the vegetable is transformed into cushiony fritters and bathed in a light tomato sauce, like the one often seen with chiles relleno.
The flat huarache corn cake, which may have originated in Mexico City, begins with the usual oblong masa shape, slathers it with red and green salsa and queso seco, then drops on tender slices of ribeye steak like a collapsing line of dominos. Every bite is heavenly, and the steak arrives precisely done to order. The tongue tacos, on the other hand, aren’t particularly memorable, so skip ‘em.
Casa Carmen is not a place to avoid dessert: The churros ($13) arrive like straggly fingers sticking out of a brown mug, still warm and dusted with granulated sugar. Two thick sauces of caramel and chocolate invite you to dip, but I didn’t bother: The doughnuts are that good on their own.