Category Archives: Columns

Kitchen Adventures: Sister Justyn in The House

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Growing up, I was known as the house cook and baker, second to my mom who dominated our kitchen with her fried chicken and Filipino masterpiece skills. But times have changed. Marriage has got my sister determined to be the best possible domestic wife she can be, and I’m no longer Bellsey chef #2. Because I live across the street from her and can often reap the benefits of her developing craft, it’s fine by me!

Last night I had a JB favorite, inspired by her father-in-law’s very own recipe: Tex Mex tacos with simmered marinated chicken, finely shredded cheddar cheese, and all the fixings you could ask for. The secret behind these tacos is the butter-pan fried corn tortillas, which of course I hate to watch being made but make all the difference with every crispy, stomach warming bite. With a sprinkle of lime, a dollop of sour cream, a BAM handful of lettuce, and a side of buttery Spanish rice, Justyn’s tacos bring me back to the days of my mama’s cooking. Fortunately I have no shame in inviting myself over!
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Barrio Chino

On rare occasions I wake up craving a hearty breakfast, and when I do, that hearty breakfast has got to be laden with beans, cheese, and salsa. Yesterday morning, after a routine late night at the Rusty Knot, I couldn’t focus on anything else but getting some rendition of huevos rancheros in my belly. After passing Dos Toros, which had no egg option, the perfect spot suddenly occurred to me – Barrio Chino in the Lower East Side. This place is constantly packed. I’ve never walked by without seeing a group of people waiting for a table. But after I called to confirm that there was (shock!) no wait at 12pm on a Saturday, I trotted a little more quickly with THE number one breakfast of champions guaranteed in my future.

I LOVE Barrio Chino’s brunch menu (I had to check it on the iPhone before getting there), which includes 5+ egg options, homemade corn tortillas,  their regular tacos and entrees, and any side you could dream of. I got the Huevos a la Mexicana, which came scrambled with chiles, onions, and tomatoes, a side salad, earthy black beans with queso fresco and a hot corn tortillas. I added (of course) guacamole, more queso, and chorizo. I needed grease people. When the plate arrived, I died, significantly more excited than what the community has been labeling as their reaction to a hot plate of food, and I did not hesitate to launch into my mini-burrito-makin’ party. Corn tortilla, dollap of beans, egg, cheese, guac, salsa, and chorizo, wrap that puppy up and shove it in my mouth.

My mission to feed the beast was a success, in fact, I felt full until around 9pm that night. Next time I have another NEED MEXICAN NOW episode during the day, Barrio Chino will for sure be my place of choice.

Grade: A
Location: 253 Broome Street between Orchard and Ludlow
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Filed under Affordable Date, Beans and Rice, Brunch, Erin's Favorites, Lower East Side, Mexican

Chavela’s

They should make a .gif animation for my reaction when someone suggests Mexican food for dinner. It would be something like “I’m all like” and then my arms would raise in gospel, somewhat like Praise the Lord!! I may not be able to clearly describe an image, but it’s true – I become overwhelmed with excitement to eat beans, cheese and rice. It could be the 8lb cheesy burritos from Fillmore Street’s Mi Burrito that my mom consumed while she was pregnant, or their gravy burritos she moved on to feed me as soon as I exited the womb. Or maybe it was the 300 Taco Bell Taco Supremes and Bean and Cheese burritos that sustained me throughout my adolescence. Or could it be that one chimichanga at Desperados in Sun Valley that stole my heart?

Whatever the reason, I have weekly cravings for a combination of fresh avocado, cheese, and carbs, and it’s no easy condition to have in this part of the country. There are of course my favorites that do the trick between my visits to California – Dos Toros, Mole and La Esquina. No, I do not like Empellon, and I rarely have time to venture to Queens for the real deal. But last night, after joining three others for a food-filled meeting at Chavela’s in Prospect Park, I came away mentally adding a fourth favorite to my list.

Don’t get confused when you search online – there’s a Chavella’s that is closed in Prospect Park  but still somehow searchable. Chavela’s is relatively spacious (something my New York favorites lack) and it serves margaritas in high balls – two things I instantly noticed that won me over.  I somehow mistakenly ordered a mango and salsa cocktail that tasted like I was drinking jarred salsa, but I blame the order, not the recipe, and was able to redeem it quickly with a donated (thanks Erica) margarita. The food is really the stand out at this place, and given that it’s ridiculously affordable (a quesadilla is $3, a large platter around $14), we went crazy by listing off pretty much every item we wanted. There’s no over-thinking here, just local ingredients and pure flavors at its core, so everything tastes good. I loved the squash blossom quesadilla, which was more like an empanada in thickness than a griddled tortilla. Covered in crema and Oaxaca cheese, I could have been satisfied with two of these. The jack cheese and corn tamale was another hearty appetizer option, and the massive Plato Don with veggies, beans, rice, guacamole, cheese, and salsa was an awesome alternative to a greasy, sizzling fajita. And for dessert, we asked for all three options – rice pudding, flan, and churros. I’m not a fan of any of these desserts usually, but the piping hot fried churros were impossible to deny.

reachin for that guac

baby quesadilla

delicious platter

Despite the two train transfers required to get to Chavela’s from my house, I definitely plan to be back to fulfill a random craving.  But now that I’m in California for the next two weeks, I see no problem doing that in the immediate future. Gordo’s baby, here I come!

Grade: A-
Location: 736 Franklin Avenue @ Sterling Place
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Filed under Beans and Rice, Brooklyn, Cheap Eat, Latin American, Mexican, Vegetarian / Vegan

Empellon

It’s not a good sign for a restaurant when a table mutually agrees to block out any memory of the food that was just eaten. Unfortunately, after much excitement around trying the new West Village Mexican spot Empellon with two of my old San Franciscan friends, we left not only hugely disappointed but on the verge of being ill. Each course would be painful to recount, but let’s just clarify that when I order a pekie toe crab salad, I by no means have any intention or desire to dig into a white, gelatinous substance flavored with fishy crab. Nor do I want to eat rubbery, chewy pieces of octopus layered in clear, jiggly, fat. If you do, then come to Empellon. Oh, and if you also like your tacos served on mushu pork wrappers with seemingly raw chicken attempting to be tender, then this might just be your favorite spot.

these look good, but don't be fooled

The only remotely decent offering here is the drinks, and the “Por Que No?” with pineapple, mint, and silver had quite the kick. But that and the mediocre yet palatable guacamole aren’t enough to save the night. I may be what some call a “foodie,” but in all fairness I’m really not picky. Empellon was just, in reality, horrible. The memory serves as hard evidence that there’s no need to fancify Mexican food. Straight forward and fresh is the way to go. If it ain’t broke, old WD 50 pastry chef, don’t fix it!

Grade: F

Location: 230 West 4th Street

Website: http://www.empellon.com

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Featured Post: Lolita in Philadelphia

This weekend my friend Sara and I were in Philadelphia to do what only very few have been so privileged to do: see Britney Spears (along with Nicki Minaj) perform live. As not only a fellow Britney fan, but also a fellow foodie, Sara picked an awesome place called Lolita to set the stage for our fun night ahead with her two childhood friends.

The letters “BYOT” takes up most of the chalk board resting outside the restaurant, stressing the importance of bringing tequila. We definitely followed orders, and as a result, we were tipsier and richer than we would have been had we purchased onsite.

I’m a sucker for Mexican food, but I can say unbiasedly that Lolita’s food is significantly creative and uncontrollably addictive. The guacamole, served with an assortment of plantain, taro, corn chips, and thin slices of jicama was so good that after one order, we called the waiter over to place a request for a second. The grilled romaine and asparagus salad with polenta croutons was my favorite of the two salads we ordered (so fitting with our Skinny Girl margaritas) – I couldn’t get enough of the beautifully browned and creamy croutons.

romained salad

beet and goat cheese salad

Despite devoting ourselves to the task of finishing two bottles of pre-made margaritas, I couldn’t stop eating the creamy green enchiladas with grilled shrimp, rice, and beans. With flavors of lime and cilantro balanced by crema fresca and melted jack cheese, the enchilada served as an edible explanation of why I am obsessed with Mexican food. So amazing!

enchiladas

perfectly roasted salmon

I wouldn’t typically choose salmon at a Latin American restaurant, but we couldn’t resist the description of roasted hearts of palm, corn, and chipotle. The combination was incredible.

Britney Spears came as a blessing, because had it not been for our commitment to the show, I would have definitely spent the rest of the night gorging on chips and guacamole and sampling other dishes. And after 1.5 hours of watching Britney dance, I have to say (regretfully) that Lolita may have stood out as the night’s best performance. ‘Til my next trip to Philly!

Grade: A

Location: 106 South 13th Street, Philadelphia

Website: http://www.lolitabyob.com

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Filed under Beans and Rice, Featured U.S. City Posts, Mexican

Barrio Chino

FINALLY! I made it to Barrio Chino and it was every thing I had hoped and dreamed. With a serious fear of having to wait for a table (this place is notorious for 2+ hour waits), Sonia and I put our name on the list at 5:30 on the dot. The place was surprisingly sparsely filled with a dwindling brunch crowd, so the host was nice enough to accommodate our request to come back and eat at 6:45pm. He called us exactly an hour and fifteen minutes later, and upon arrival we were seated at a tiny booth with our friends Lauren and Nicole.

sign-less front

I’ve read countless reviews about the house grapefruit margaritas, so we immediately ordered a round along with chips and guacamole. There were only two servers for the entire restaurant (which is about the size of my office’s freight elevator), but are drinks and guac were served promptly. Thank God, because I was starving. I’ve seen larger portions of guacamole, but for the price ($8) and the extraordinary quality, I couldn’t complain. I love all guacamole, but this had large chunks of avocado, sweet onion, and was seasoned perfectly. I could have eaten this with a fork as an appetizer. The grapefruit margarita went down way too easily – so easily that I decided to switch to the spicy habanero grapefruit margarita, which was actually so spicy it was almost tortuous (in a good way) to swallow.

flavorful guac

grapefruit perfection

I came with a mission to try the tacos, so I ordered the grilled chicken, tilapia, and marinated steak tacos for the table. There are three in a order, but given the sand-dollar sized tortillas, one order is a perfect amount for one person. The flavors in all the tacos were bright and satisfyingly authentic, but my favorite was the marinated steak that came with cilantro, lime and fresh, soft avocado. The chicken, for being chicken, was quite impressive as well with well rounded notes of garlic and lime.

steak tacos

Surprisingly enough, the beans were my favorite part of the meal. With fresh chunks of queso fresco, they were the perfect dip for the hot fried tortilla chips.

I’m a serious sucker for all Mexican food, but Barrio Chino’s popularity is definitely well-deserved. Their menu is overloaded with authentic, bold, fresh Mexican food at great prices. It’s not the most ideal spot for a group, but the food and margaritas fully justify the tight squeeze.

Grade: A

Location: 253 Broome between Orchard and Ludlow St

Website: www.barriochinonyc.com

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Filed under Affordable Date, Beans and Rice, Erin's Favorites, Lower East Side, Mexican

La Esquina

Restaurant in disguise

The success rate for reserving a table at La Esquina is about 1 in every 20 attempts. Up until last week, I’ve spoken to a live voice on the reservation line only twice, and each time I’ve heard the same old chorus: nothing available. I began to suspect La Esquina was a cult, similar to Waverly Inn, where you really didn’t stand a chance to enter unless you were or knew someone famous.

I just recently discovered the recipe for success: Monday nights at 6pm. Who else goes out at 6pm on Mondays but those desperately wanted to try a hot spot like this one? Fortunately, I and three of my colleagues had an excuse to celebrate, and we decided to seal the deal tonight.

Like many of the mysterious, highly acclaimed restaurants in downtown New York, La Esquina masks itself as a run down taco shop in the middle of an abandoned intersection in Soho. The restaurant below it is accessible via an entry way labeled as “Private: Employees Only” and guarded by the host – so grounds are completely invisible by the surrounding laymen lacking reservations. The trends are all too familiar: disguise and intrigue leads to intense curiosity, which transforms into great publicity, which generates seriously high demand for tables. The seductive, Speakeasy-style restaurants may not be worth the allure in actuality, but I can shamelessly admit that being an insider for a night feels damn right satisfying.

After being led downstairs and through the kitchen, we entered the underground dining area, so dimly lit that even the excessive stereotypical Mexican decor was difficult to see. Visibility had no affect on service, and our drink orders were taken immediately – I had the Diablo with cucumber puree and jalapeno tequila. Hankering for some noshes, I asked for chips and salsa but was saddened (though not surprised) by our waiter’s response, which she had obviously recited many times before: “La Esquina does not have guacamole or chips, or burritos for that matter.” What a great ploy to force the hungry to over-order!

Pepino Diablo

We started with the quesadilla de huitlacoche with mexican truffle, roasted corn, mushrooms, and queso oaxaca. You can never go wrong with a quesadilla, but I could hardly taste the truffle, and would have loved a fresher pico de gallo over the smokey salsa that was served on the side.

Mushroom Quesadilla

I expected the crab tostada to be one large fried corn tortilla; instead, it came out as three tapas on small round chips. The piled crab was awesomely fresh and light nonetheless, and easy to eat in one swoop.

Next came the salad mixta, which came with a slew of vegetables ranging from string beans to brussels sprouts, queso fresco, and large chunks of avocado. Fresh, crunchy, and flavorful, and relatively generous in portion, this was definitely a stand out of the appetizers.

ensalada mixta

For our main course, we ordered two “taquitos”: the char grilled steak and the grilled skewered fish, along with a side of rice, beans, and swiss chard. The taquitos were served on soft corn tortillas, and were therefore identical to what I consider a taco except served a la carte, and minuscule compared to the bountiful tacos I’ve grown to love at Mole. Still, they tasted fresh, and the steak was well seasoned and tender. One order per person is a must.

pescado taquitos

After finishing up our first round, we supplemented our order with another quesadilla and the chicken tostadas, which had a little more zing with crema and avocado. The smokiness of the chicken meshed well with the crispy corn tortilla, but the fresh crab still reigned as the winner.

Chicken taquito

It definitely took a series of dishes to satisfy our hunger, but fortunately I find joy in trying a little bit of a large variety. When I think Mexican food, I tend to envision large plates with many components. La Esquina is definitely not the norm in that respect – with a focus on a la carte (very) small plates, dim lighting, and strong drinks, it’s definitely New York’s swanked out twist on Mexican authenticity.

The light portion sizes at least serve a purpose to free up room for dessert, and I was thrilled to see a dense warm chocolate cake with cinnamon and creme fraiche ice cream on the list. I couldn’t taste a lick of cinnamon, but the cake was warm and consistently smooth. Per our server’s recommendation, we also tried the three-cheese cheesecake with caramelized walnuts and pomegranate seeds. A richer, creamier version of flan, this resembled the desserts I’m accustomed to seeing, and avoiding, at Mexican restaurants. Not my favorite, but would definitely be a crowd pleaser for the non-chocolate-dessert lovers (bless your hearts).

Mexican cheesecake

 

chocolate cake

I loved having the chance to make my dream of eating at La Esquina a reality, but taken out of context, the food was, simply put, fine. Not far ahead of Dos Caminos on the list of acceptable Mexican. A trip to La Esquina is not warranted, as one would expect, by food alone. You should come with high expectations of the overall experience – sharing tapas with friends, while feeling on top of the world in an underground scene. And shamelessly, it’s for this reason that I’ll attempt to return when I next have guests in town who are simply looking for stiff cocktails, some New York absurdity, and a good time.

Grade: B+

Location: 114 Kenmare @ Lafayette Street

Website: http://www.laesquinanyc.com

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Filed under Beans and Rice, Fun Group Dinner, Latin American, Lower East Side, Mexican, Sex & The City Swank, Soho, Tapas

Papatzul

Last night I joined a group of 7 at Papatzul for my friend Ashley’s birthday. I’ve been once before, but I was excited to return for their inventive Mexican cuisine, affordable menu, and celebratory atmosphere. The restaurant is fairly small and viewable in its entirety from any table, so dining here is really a communal experience – it feels like one big party, with everyone carousing and celebrating for one common purpose.

Despite the limited table space, our group of 8 was seated immediately upon arrival. For the hustle and bustle of the surroundings, service was definitely timely and attentive. I ordered a round of guacamole for the table, and within minutes it arrived. Unlike that of Mole or Dos Caminos, it wasn’t made table-side, but it was still chunky,  garlicky, and a hot commodity at the table. My only complaint was that the portion was far too small…when I say “for the table,” I mean enough so everyone can have a good helping without feeling anxiety that it’s going to be gone before the next bite. Moral of the story: get one order for every four people.

While everyone else partook in margarita pitchers, I was hankering for a mojito, which I’ve now started ordering with vodka. Rum makes me sick, is too sweet on its own, and I like to drink vodka whenever the opportunity arises. When I made the request to our waiter, she literally stuck her tongue out in disgust and yelped “EW! Gross, is that good?” The only “gross” thing about it was her rudeness. Obviously it’s good if I’m ordering it, lady. I let it pass and after realizing her stupid mistake at the sight of my facial expression, she made every effort to be extra responsive to our table’s needs.

I may just be a sucker for Mexican food, but everything was delicious. To start, Ashley’s roommate ordered Sopes Con Calabaza – masa boats topped with zucchini, mushroom, and goat cheese. The combination of the sweet corn cake and the goat cheese was incredible, and it was the perfect, hearty vegetarian dish.

For our entrees, Sonia and I split the Tlacoyos De Pollo, which consisted of refried bean filled masa boats, shredded chicken, avocado tomatillo salsa and queso fresco, and the Alambre de Res, soft hanger steak tacos. I preferred the chicken dish, which was topped with a hearty helping of one of my favorite cheeses.  The masa boat tasted like  a crispy deep fried corn cake, similar to the outside of a corn dog, but it paired perfectly with the lightness of the tomato salsa and freshness of the avocado.

The steak tacos, although tasty, weren’t exactly what I had expected. Served as a dish of steak, peppers, and cheese with a side of corn tortillas, it was more like fajitas, and I’m not sure why they didn’t just call it that to avoid confusion. Anything topped with copious amounts of jack cheese is bound to be enticing, but in this case it tainted every component with grease. Fortunately, when drinking I tend to crave this type of food, and I had no problem using the cheese as a topping for my tortilla chips in an effort to make my own nachos.

The other dishes I tried – carnitas tacos and tortilla casserole – were awesome. The tortilla casserole is like a Mexican dream – just like a Mexican lasagna. Deliciously cheesy, creamy, and piping hot in a ceramic dish, this is the perfect remedy for a cold New York winter not only because of its homey goodness but also due to the layer of fat it would add if eaten on a nightly basis. Healthy or not, this is definitely a must-try if you’re going to Papatzul.

To cap off the night, the waitress came out with the dark horse of the night – Mini Flan De Chocolate Y Chile Con Nieve De Canela, a chocolate and chili pot de crème with cinnamon ice cream. At first sight I expected a typical bland chocolate pudding, but this had real, intense, dark chocolate flavor, and the sweet and spicy flavor woke up taste buds I didn’t know I had. Chocolate, cinnamon and chili – what an unexpectedly perfect combo!

Ashley blowing out her birthday candle

Papatzul embraces all aspects of what Mexican food is: vibrant, playful, fun, and awakening. I’m lucky to have Mole close by to curb my cravings for avocado and cheese, but Papatzul is definitely worth the trip to Grand street. With its upbeat vibe and flavor-packed, sharable food, it’s perfect for a group dining experience before the night on a town.

Grade: A-

Location: 55 Grand Street at West Broadway

Website: http://www.papatzul.com

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Filed under Beans and Rice, Cheap Eat, Drinks & Apps, Fun Group Dinner, Mexican, Soho

Cafe Condesa

What seems like ages ago, I lived in a tiny 2 bedroom apartment on Christopher street, and Cafe Condesa was my go-to neighborhood spot. Last night, I decided to get a blast from the past after learning about the one hour wait at Joseph Leonard. Cafe Condesa at first site appears to be a neighborhood coffee shop – with just two or three chefs cooking on electric stoves behind a small bar, 10 wooden two-tops max, and an exposed bathroom door, it definitely doesn’t have the fixtures and amenities of most restaurants in the area. Regardless, the vibe is satisfyingly relaxed, romantic, and cozy, and the food, which is a essentially American with a tiny Mexican twist, is consistently delicious. For the bare-boned-ness of the space, the menu offers a wide selection of sophisticated comfort food, from warm brie and honey to roasted salmon and grilled skirt steak, and an affordable variety of wines by the glass to wash it all down. And, even more impressive is the instantaneous serving of warm baguette with fresh butter, the real key to my stomach.

Despite our waiter’s tempting description of the butternut squash soup special, I decided to stick to my long time favorites and ordered the three cheese portobello salad with pecorino, shaved parmesan, spinach and balsamic glaze as my appetizer. The spinach leaves were whole, whereas in the past they were coarsely chopped, but the mushroom filled with the savory, smooth cheese medley was just as delicious as I had remembered.

I could have chosen blind-folded and been happy (I’ve yet to order the chicken enchiladas), but fond food memories urged me to order the pan seared sea scallops, which are served on a bed of creamy potato puree, a hearty portion of char-roasted cauliflower, poblano pepper sauce, and brussels sprouts.

Each component of this dish is so delicate, but equally hearty and comforting, and the flavors, colors, and differing textures make it utterly satisfying. Whenever I visit Cafe Condesa, I can’t help but be simultaneously impressed by the quality of the food and the fact that two cooks in a makeshift kitchen are the ones responsible. Even more amazing is the fact that they’ve managed to keep almost every menu item under $20.00, and there’s rarely a wait for a table…not to mention, it’s in the West Village.

The only disappointing part of the meal was the moment our waiter confirmed they were out of their delicious chocolate souffle. Probably for my own good. The pecan pie would have been a good replacement, but at that point it was 11:00pm and dessert felt like an obligation.

I’m happy a rediscovered an old favorite; Cafe Condesa is sure to be top of mind especially as venturing out of the West Village becomes more daunting as temperatures dip to the teens. Next on the list: Cafe Condesa for brunch.

Grade: A

Location: 183 West 10th Street @ 7th Ave South

Website: http://www.cafecondesa.com/

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Filed under Affordable Date, Beans and Rice, Cheap Eat, Erin's Favorites, Mexican, West Village

Mole West Village – an answer to my prayers

When my friend Sonia (aka Runway Hippie) moved to the Lower East Side last year, she discovered a tiny yet magical Mexican joint called Mole. I visited once and instantly became an addict for its tableside gaucamole, tangy margaritas, and amazingly varied menu of authentic Mexican dishes. Though the space is a bit cramped. its charm and family-owned feel was a fresh breath of air among the overload of Mexican restaurant imposters (ehem…Dos Caminos..). The only issues for me was the hassle of getting to the LES everytime I wanted to go!
Well, I can complain no longer as Mole number 2 just opened only three blocks away from my apartment. Talk about convenience! And not only that, this Mole is larger (though relatively quite small), and still seemingly undiscovered – a party of two before 7.30pm on most nights can most likely be seated within 15 minutes. I’ve been desperate to visit since it opened, and I finally got a chance tonight with a few of my friends from Semester at Sea. Though their company makes any food taste good, I can honestly say that the quality of the food at this location was just as good as that in the first.
To start, the drinks were just perfectly sweet – something VERY important for me in a cocktail. I can’t stand overly sugary drinks, and Mole does a perfect “Paloma” with tequila, grapefruit soda, and lime that is a great compliment to the salty Mexican food. My friends ordered the special “acai” flavored margarita – also deliciously tangy and sweet.
The guacamole was incredible as usual, and the chips served with it were satisfyingly sturdy and crisp.
I ordered the grilled chicken tacos as a main course – with rice, beans, salsa, and a small side salad at just $14, I definitely got my money’s worth.
My friend Prin ordered the Carnitas special, which was also delicious.
Another creative dish on our table was the vegetarian burrito served with cabbage, mushrooms, and spinach – surprisingly flavorful and satisfying.
Anthony with his bountiful taco salad in a flour tortilla basket
I wouldn’t go so far to say that Mole’s food is as good as the Mexican I can get in California, but it’s definitely my favorite Mexican restaurant (along with Papazul in Soho) in the East Coast. Considering I am continuously on the search for good Mexican, that says a lot. Go to Mole for a good margarita and a hearty, fresh Mexican meal in a cozy, charming, and vibrant setting. A definite stand out in the typically chique / sceney West Village bistro scene. I have a feeling that despite its hidden location on Jane and Hudson, this place will stick around for a while. Here’s hoping!
Location: 624 Hudson Street at Jane Street

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Filed under Affordable Date, Beans and Rice, Cheap Eat, Drinks & Apps, Fun Group Dinner, Mexican, West Village