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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Location: 114 Kenmare @ Lafayette Street