I didn't expect to like La Esquina, a secret SoHo restaurant that had been on my must-try list for a long time. After hearing it was a good place for groups, I'd been trying to get a reservation since June. Each time, I called the restaurant a full month before my desired date only to find out that seatings at 6pm or 11pm were available. I didn't understand how a supposed secret place could always be booked at the best times. I immediately assumed it would be like all the other overpriced Mexican spots where I've gathered to celebrate someone's engagement or another person's birthday, forking over an arm and a leg at the end of the meal for insanely priced guacamole (prepared tableside!) and pitcher after pitcher of sangria. I wished I didn't want to try it, but after hearing again and again about just how good it was, I begrudgingly kept it on my list.
Then a few weeks ago, when discussing a going away dinner for Alexandra who will soon be moving to Rome, Karlyn suggested La Esquina which she and Doug had recently visited during a Dave Does shoot. After a few phone calls, Karlyn was able to secure an 8pm reservation for last Thursday night.
We kicked off the evening with cocktails at Pravda, a Russian vodka bar on Lafayette, a great pre-dinner spot with its own secretive setting, before walking over to the corner of Kenmare Street and Cleavland Place.
We entered through the front door of a taco stand that looks more like a movie theater, its list of stuffed treats displayed in big, black letters next to a neon sign that reads La Esquina, and its English tranlsation, The Corner, which I've been told was the name of the former deli that used to occupy the space.
Once it was time to make our way to the actual restaurant, I immediately took my camera out only to have almost every single person in our group scold me since apparently picture taking was not allowed in this super secretive place. That alone made this adventure even more fun, especially when Doug whispered to me that he had already shot a whole slew during the shoot, which is where the first three pictures from La Esquina came from.
After entering through a door marked Employees Only, we walked down a dingy stairwell, through the brightly lit kitchen and into a dark, sexy, subterranean space dimly lit by candelbras that dripped mountains of wax. The bar was full of people, deep in conversation, and Cesaria Evora's soulful lyrics of longing and sadness danced hauntingly through the air.
With its hard wood floors and distressed walls, the restaurant felt like a stylish cave, complete with kitschy tile displays for decoration, my favorite being the Drop It Like Its Hot one featuring a bikini clad woman surrounded by some chili peppers. The restaurant was surprisingly much more subdued than I expected, less sceney and more mysterious, with very little lighting and of course not a window in sight.
One round of potent and pricey margaritas later, we were seated, hungry and ready to eat. When our waitress came to take our order, we immediately demanded guacamole, only to have her shake her head, ready to deliver a speech that Im sure she's had to present many, many times. I suspected she even found some slight pleasure in telling us the bad news that particularly broke Karlyn's heart.
She explained that guacamole is more Tex-Mex than true Mexican which is why you won't find it at La Esquina. Normally, I'm all for avoiding any sort of gimmicky food trap, especially the guacamole that's prepared tableside just so restaurants can tack on an extra $10 for it. I've been told many times that the Japanese do not eat saucer-sized pieces of sushi doused with an array of sweet sauces, and this I can understand. I also know that many of the dishes that I love to order from some of my local Thai restaurants are very Americanized, which is why I'd rather eat at authentic Sripraphai any day with April and Josh who lived in Thailand for a year and can help guide my order. But no guacamole at a Mexican restaurant? Come onnnnn.
I glanced back down at my menu, sure that I had seen guacamole written there only to realize that while La Esquina does not serve guacamole, they do offer whole avocados, which I guess one could mash up, sprinkle with some salt and a squeeze of lime if really desperate. I must admit I considered it, but since there was a lot of other intersting items on the menu, we tried to move on, though this did become an ongoing joke, with Karlyn asking for an order each time our waitress came to check on us.
Since it was Alexandra's last night in Manhattan, we decided it'd be best if she just ordered a bunch of stuff. Our waitress warned us that portions were particularly small, so she took the liberty of doubling and tripling some of our orders just to make sure we had enough. That decision, delivered after her avocado annoucement, left me even more suspicious of La Esquina.
And then, the food arrived. So many platters landed on our table at once that I felt overwhelmed by all the options, causing me to quickly pile my plate out of fear that there might not be any left in just a few minutes. Everyone at the table either once did or still does work for Food Network and our appetites can prove it.
To start, Alexandra had ordered a nice assortment of tacos, tostadas and a quesadilla with roasted corn, epazote, mushrooms, queso oaxaca and huitlacoche. Considered a pest in the United States and a delicacy in Mexico, the huitlacoche, a corn fungus, added an earthy flavor to my soft slices of quesadilla with extra crispy edges, making it my favorite appetizer of the bunch. I also learned that epazote is an herb used in traditional Mexican cooking for its tangy kick -- and antiflatulent properties -- that has been compared to tarragon and even fennel, though I didn't taste any lingering licorice flavors.
I was only able to try two of the tacos, the pulled pork which consisted of sauce soaked strands of tender meat, wrapped up in a traditional corn tortilla, and the grilled fish, whose tangy salsa verde, livened up the clean, light fish. There was also one with veal toungue, avocado crema and black beans floating around, but my hands weren't quick enough.
Though we didn't order it, I'd also noticed a gazpacho a sandia with watermelon, roasted ancho pepper, and queso blanco on the menu, which reminded me of a salad with watermelon and Mexican goat cheese that Daniel and I tried at Hechizo, a similarly secret restaurant that we discovered during our first trip to Mexico this past March. Slowly I was beginning to see that maybe La Esquina was the real deal after all.
After our plates were cleared and a bottle of champagne was popped open, round two began, the main attraction this time being a pile of Mexican corn on the cob, its tender, sweet kernels charred slightly and dusted with crumbles of cotiija, a Mexican cheese that is similar in consistency to feta. I'd first tried corn prepared this way at SoHo's other popular Latin spot, Cafe Habana, though there, they give the cob a nice sprinkling of chile powder for extra kick.
I was no longer afraid of using my camera in the restaurant, so I chose to shoot some corn shots, though it was Alexandra and Doug who looked the best while stuffing themselves silly.
After the pile of corn had been devoured, we moved on to the entrees, a platter of chicken with mole, charred chipotle-guava glazed pork ribs, mayan shrimp with a honey lime glaze and chipotle corn slaw and a side of plaintains served with salsa verde and queso fresco.
The plump pork ribs were succulent and sweet, and the meat literally fell right off with just one bite. The shrimp, prepared a la plancha, were fat and salty, with a slighty charred taste that the cabbage slaw helped soften a bit.
We were all a bit aggressive in our approach to the chicken mole which sat in the middle of the table the entire time. Rather than pass it around like civilized people, we chose to all just lean over and rip hunks of it off with our forks and knives, the chocolatey sauce clinging on for dear life. How I managed to leave La Esquina with not a single spill on my white jeans is truly a miracle.
Once we'd sufficiently wiped out very single platter of food, someone noticed that there was still a covered plate in the middle of the table. Someone else asked what was in there, someone else said tortillas, and before you knew it, the top flew off, our hands flew in, and we were using those hot corn pancakes to sop up any lingering bits of sauce we could find. It's a good thing they keep it so dark in there, because at this point, I think we looked like total animals. But with food this good, it was hard not to!
Once it felt like we couldn't eat another bite, Kellie whipped out a box of goodies from Magnolia Bakery, a place where most New Yorkers have stood in line at least once for their signature cupcakes. These days, the bakery has become too popular, thanks to a Sex and the City scene that was once taped there, and a line snakes around the corner on any given day.
We cut them each in half and again dug right in, surprised to see that these were even more fresh than normal and of course, extra sugary. I usually always go the vanilla cake, vanilla icing route at Magnolia, but decided to give the chocolate a whirl, impressed by its light cocoa flavor which wasn't too cloyingly sweet, but definitely quite buttery.
We paid the bill, the final damage expensive, but not as bad as I'd expected, before making our way back through the kitchen, up the dingy stairwell, through the taco stand and out onto Kenmare Street and Cleveland Place.
I didn't just like La Esquina, I loved it. The secretive setting and the traditional yet imaginative take on Mexican cuisine really surpassed my originally low expectations. The portions were kind of small (which means that our waitress was correct in her decision to order more for us) and there is that pesky reservation process, but I now know that you can get most of the same food at the taco stand or the restaurant's calmer, no reservation cafe around the corner. As for the lack of guacamole? To be honest, I didn't even miss it.
106 Kenmare Street
New York, NY