Home of Manhattan’s Best Banh Mi Sandwich – Review of Sao Mai

BY ELENA MANCINI

203 First Ave.
East Village
(212) 358-8880 / Sao Mai 

East of the East Village bustle and trendiness, this family-run East Village Vietnamese restaurant serves traditional Vietnamese fare and the best Banh Mi Sandwiches on the Manhattan side of the East River.

Vegetarian Bahn Mi

Available in six varieties including pho, sliced pork, grilled chicken and vegetarian, these sandwiches make a quick, nutritious, flavor-packed meal that’s easy on the wallet (priced between $6-$7). The Bahn Mi are prepared on baguettes are consistently fresh and crusty with a soft and chewy middle. Independent of the filling you choose, the kitchen always strikes the right balance between bread and ingredients. Their vegetarian Bahn Mi is among my favorite comfort-food lunches. Prepared on two warm halves of choice baguette, they’re stuffed with toothsome strands of sauteed bok choy, straw mushrooms, seedless cucumbers, shredded carrot and abundant swaths of cilantro, the sandwiches and seasoned with lemongrass,  sriracha mayonnaise, that provides a subtle and reverberating pitch of complex heat. In sum, it’s a light, filling lunch that delivers high-flavor rewards.

Pho’ Sao Mai

Front: Summer Rolls; Far: Spring Rolls

Lest one think Sao Mi is just about Bahn Mi, flavor mavens and fans of traditional Vietnamese fare will find other  sections of its menu will prove well worth exploring. The Pho Sao Mai will not disappoint. A flavorful broth, rich in tender strips of brisket, sprouts, rice noodles and a medley of herbs will consistently hit the spot. Adding appeal to  Sao Mi’s attractions is its steal of a lunch menu, which includes the choice of an appetizer, entree and a soft drink, all for $10. Sweetening things further,  both the Bahn Mi and the Pho are included in this deal!

Ga Gary – Chicken Curry

With a wide variety of vegetarian options on its menu, Sao Mai is also a smart choice for a low-key dinner that guarantees value, quality and flavor. Pity that wait staff has not yet mastered the walk-in dinner crowd on weekends. During these times, the  friendly service  can turn into a source of frustration for those who do not suffer extended waits and uneven food delivery times lightly.

Sao Mai on Urbanspoon

Where New Yorkers Experience the Heart and Mole of Mexico – Review of Mole

BY CRAIG CAVALLO

Mole
1735 Second Avenue (between 89th and 90th)
Upper East Side
 (212) 289-8226 molenyc.com

New York City is a melting pot.  Its inhabitants come from all corners of the world.  As travelers move here to make the city their home, their culture is the first thing that gets unpacked when they arrive.  Suitcases are unzipped and it escapes into the air, becoming part of what we as New Yorkers breathe.  The city’s borders are the minister, or clergy, or rabbi that marries us and joins us in holy matrimony.  It is sometimes the case that two travelers from different places find each other and find love.  The next step is generally to get married.  When the couple shares a passion for food, as is the case with Nick Cervera and Guadalupe Elizalde, after you get married, you open a Mexican restaurant.


Nick and Guadalupe are the owners of the Mole restaurants.  With locations established on the Lower East Side (205 Allen Street), the West Village (57 Jane Street), and Williamsburg, Brooklyn (178 Kent Avenue), the opening of the Upper East Side location in March, at 1735 2nd Avenue, marks their fourth endeavor.  Before it was transformed into a Mole, the Upper East Side 1735 address was the home to a print shop.  At a recent tasting, Nick sat at the table before dinner ensued and spoke proudly of the work he put forth to make the interior what it is today; a comfortable, rustic, yet elegant display of Mexican-meets-New York heritage.  Original exposed brick is decorated with black and white photos Nick took himself on his visits to Mexico, Guadalupe’s native country.  The 17-foot long bar is made from 200-year old reclaimed wood and custom made Mexican tiles.  It stands a bit off to the side, almost separate from the dining room.  This is an intentional move designed to keep refugees from Brother Jimmys from stumbling in and ordering shots of Jose Cuervo after the Jets or Yankees suffer a loss.

Guadalupe cooks traditional fare at Mole and she is guided by original family recipes.  There is a caldo on the menu, Caldo Tlalpeno.  Variations of caldo (meaning “soup” or “broth”) exist in most Spanish speaking countries.  At Mole, their caldo takes its name from a town about an hour and a half south of Mexico City.  Nick mentioned that, driving between these two cities, roadside stands dot the road and sell this caldo along the way.  Shredded chicken and mushrooms are the only thing keeping this clear, “mountainside” broth company.  Chopped raw onions, cilantro, and lime accompany the soup, should you feel so inclined to disrupt the intense, deep, rich, clean spice that manages to hide in the deceiving broth.

You will find huitlacoche on the menu.  Huitlacoche is a wild, naturally occurring corn fungus.  During exceptionally rainy seasons, rain water can penetrate the husks that are supposed to protect corn from the elements and result in the growth of huitlacoche.  Due to its rarity and inability to be harvested, the fungus is often referred to as the Mexican truffle.  The ingredient is truly unique to Mexican cooking and Mole uses it with an ancestral understanding

Taquitos de Barbacoa are prepared at Mole “Relinas style,” a name used in devotion to Lupe’s dad, who would make the dish in Guadalupe’s youth by burying the meat used to fill the taquitos in cactus leaf and cooking it in the soil on his ranch for 12 hours.

Enchilada de Pato en Mole Poblano is the piece de resistance.  The dish features duck confit, done here “carnitas style,” referring to the technique of cooking an animal in its own fat.  The cooking method is commonly applied to pork, resulting in carnitas tacos.  The sauce, Mole Poblano, is something like Mexican marinara, or Central America’s bechamel.  It has taken on many forms and colors since nuns created it in the 16th century for the visiting archbishop.  For use at the Mole restaurants, it is made in Mexico by Guadalupe’s mom and then flown here.  It is intensely rich, dark and sweet from the inclusion of chocolate, both smoky and spicy from dried chilies, and made more complex, and texturally whimsical, with the addition of sesame seeds.

Though it is not an option listed on the menu, Nick is happy to pair each course with a different spirit, a move inspired by the philosophy practiced and popularized at places like Gramercy Tavern and Le Bernardin, and one that is rarely ever applied to Mexican cuisine.  It provides Nick the chance to showcase the diversity of the 100 plus tequilas and mezcals Mole has on hand along with his understanding of his wife’s food.

As Mole continues to expand, Nick and Guadalupe keep a few Mexican-American standbys on the menu to appease their ever reaching clientele.  You get the sense that fajitas are thrown onto the menu only to prevent the uninformed argument that, “Wait, you’re a Mexican restaurant and you don’t have fajitas on the menu?!”  Like other Mexican haunts throughout the city, the guacamole is made table-side, but something about it seems less gimmicky when it’s done for you here.

The different locations of Mole itself are a reflection of the owners’ marriage.  Their chain of restaurants is an extension of their home, a home whose doors are kept open for you seven days a week.  Guadalupe came out from the kitchen at the end of the meal and introduced herself simply as Lupe.  As she leaned down over our table, her smile seemed to say, “I’m just Lupe, and this is just the food I’ve been eating since I was a kid.”

Móle on Urbanspoon

Taco Enfant Terrible takes Manhattan – Review of Teqa

BY ELENA MANCINI

Chef Chris Goossen

Teqa
447 Third Ave.
Murray Hill
212-213-3223
http://www.teqanyc.com/

Murray Hill has gotten a lot of press lately for its notably upgraded restaurant scene over the past couple of years. Amid Les Halles Resto, Zengo, Terroir, inoteca, Teqa is firmly among the key players in raising the neighborhood’s foodie profile. Open for under two years, Teqa is a airy, elegant dimly-lit relaxing space designed by Lesly Zamor with a spacious bar and a decor that evokes South Beach and L.A. more than it does New York. It has recently managed to lure the creative genius of Los Angeles chef and taco guru, Chris Goossen to helm its kitchen.

A fierce, wife-beater-donning 38 year with a boxing background, Goossen’s demeanor is both provocative and entertaining, to say the least: think: the non-compromising standards of Gordon Ramsey, and the badass mystique of Anthony Bourdain, but the L.A. version of both. Goossen’s passion is to celebrate the authentic flavors of Mexico with his inventive and inspired Nouveau Mexican dishes. Goossen has created 42 original tacos with ingredients from around the world. With two decades of the restaurant business under his belt before coming to New York, Goossen brings a wealth of culinary and business acumen to the table. His previous chefing gigs include Dome and Bottega Louie in L.A. and starting his legendary Knockout Taco Truck in the City of Angeles, or “Lost Angeles” as it is cheekily referred to on his fore-arm-lengthed tattoo. Goossen’s reads like an L.A. story through and through. Prior to knocking it out of the park with his taco truck, Goossen had worked as Mark Wahlberg’s private chef for five years.

My dining companion and I had the opportunity to speak with Goossen briefly that evening. The first things that struck me about him were his fierceness and sense of humor. He asked us to pardon the wife-beater, and made a charming joke about the temperature in his workplace. When asked what his culinary vision and message, Goossen responded that his mission is to educate. He explained that “New Yorkers don’t get Mexican food.” They’re not accustomed to the heat and don’t yet have the palate for it. Goossen aims to change that. Part of his vision is also to prove that that fine food can be served on a taco. If you doubt his cred or dedication, Goossen’s created 42 tacos with ingredients from around the world.

Asked how he runs his kitchen, Goossen fired a reflex-like response: I’m a tyrannt. He talked about educating his kitchen staff by not coddling them. He practices breaking people down to build them back up and make them better than before. He summed up his approach by stating: “I’m the nicest a…(insert unisex body part) you’ll ever meet.” Keep reading to find out whether the dishes rise to match the persona.

The menu includes an extensive cocktail list, many of which are made with tequila and a reasonable selection of wines by the glass at the $10 range. Menu categories include appetizers, salads, (all within the $10 – $15 range) three distinct taco categories and main courses (between $17 – $24) and desserts (under $10).

I ordered a rose hibiscus tequila drink. The fresh juice flavors were very pronounced and added a natural bitter-sweet dimension to the sweet tequila undertones. My dining companion ordered spicy cucumber margarita. This was a margarita slam dunk, and is the drink that I will be sure to order on my next visit. Both cocktails were priced at $11.

DISHES SAMPLED:

Dinner began with an order of Taquitos de Carnitas and border chopped salad. The hard shell was filled with juicy braised pulled pork and flavored with salsa mexicana and a modest sprinkling of cotija cheese for creaminess. When taking our order, our server asked us about our heat-factor preferences, and we opted for mild-medium and the taquitos had just the right amount of kick.

Border Chopped Salad at Teqa

The salad was a refreshing segue to the grounding effects of the taquitos. It consisted of vibrant shreds of farmer’s kale jazzed up with jicama, bacon, breadcrumbs and a compelling citrus vinaigrette.

 

Hawaiian Tuna Poke

The Hawaiian Tuna Poke was an ingenious blend of flavors and textures. Made with fresh and generously meaty cuts of Tuna Poke sushi paired with avocado, jalapeno and a light sprinkle of togarashi, or Japanese chili powder, in a hard taco shell, this dish was excitingly scrumptious and lingered pleasantly on my blissful palate.

Oaxacan Style Escolar at Teqa

For the main course, I enjoyed the Oaxacan style fish of the day. On that day it happened to be the esc0lar. It was grilled with subtle seasoning which allowed for the delicate nuances of the fish’s flavors to shine through. The thick chunk of fish was flaky and moist and had a light, but highly enjoyable flavor. It was paired with an elegant smattering of roasted shitake mushrooms. I later read up and escolar and learned that it has been known to cause gastric distress because of its high-oil content if consumed in inordinate quantities. I’m glad to report that I hadn’t noticed any excessive oiliness and suffered no discomfort whatsoever at having enjoyed this dish.

Churros with Vanilla Sauce

Churros with Vanilla Sauce

For dessert we shared the churros with vanilla sauce. The churro orbs were crisp and puffy and had a dense but caky consistency.  Resting atop a seductive bed of warm white wine-infused vanilla sauce, the dessert and the side of fresh berries that accompanied it was gone within less than a handful of minutes.

THE SERVICE: Knowledgeable and attentive without being intrusive. Our servers were consistently able to answer questions about the menu and provide guidance when necessary. Inquired about food allergies and heat-factor tolerance.

Offering a youthful vibe, foodie pleasures and reasonable tabs, Teqa’s an excellent choice for an intimate dinner or for small groups of adults. It also serves lunch and weekend brunch.

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Pampano pampers guests with tequila tasting

BY BETH KAISERMAN

Pampano
209 E. 49th St. between 2nd and 3rd Ave.
Midtown East
212.751.4545/richardsandoval.com/pampano

RiazulPremiumTequila complemented a $75 five-course tasting menu at Pampano, a modern Latin restaurant in Midtown.

 

The ambiance was light and fresh, as was the food. The meal began with Tostadita de Jaiba: crab slaw in fresh crisp tortillas, with roasted corn, radishes and lime, and topped with an avocado slice. This was served with a Guanabana Margarita made with Riazul Silver. Next was Tiradito de Fluke with an amazing Mojito, again with Riazul Silver. Grilled marinated calamari with pea shoots and citrus vinaigrette was paired with Riazul Reposado. This tequila’s citrus elements really shined through in this pairing. Pavo al Mole, stuffed guinea fowl breast with peppercress, almonds and mole poblano was paired with Riazul Silver. Finally, Riazul Anejo was served alongside yuzu panna cotta with hibiscus sauce and toasted coconut.

 

My favorite dish was the first. I usually don’t like seafood slaws, but this one was bright and easy to eat; all of the ingredients highlighted the tasty crab. The lime really did its job here.

The tequila I looked forward to all night was Riazul Anejo, which is aged in a white oak cask for two years. This smoky honey-tinged tequila was perfect with the hints of vanilla in this creamy dessert.

InakiOrozco, founder and CEO of Riazul Premium Tequila, inherited growing space in the Highlands of Mexico from his ancestors, upon which he began harvesting tequila in the late 1990s.

The dinner began with a couple cocktails, but progressed into sipping a few tequilas, the way it is traditionally done in Mexico. Sipping offers drinkers a chance to explore the nuances of each tequila. Courtenay Greenleaf, tequila librarian at LaBibliotecadeTequila, advised us to sniff with our mouths open to capture the aromas, then sip slowly.

Orozco and Greenleaf provided useful knowledge throughout the evening, and the Pampano staff was helpful as well. All in all, it was an enjoyable time, and I certainly gained some new insight and appreciation for tequila.

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One of Manhattan’s best-kept secrets – Review of The Cowgirl Seahorse

BY ERIN PALISIN

The Cowgirl Seahorse
259 Front St.
Financial District
(212) 608-7873 / www.cowgirlseahorse.com

Prickly Pear Frozen Margarita

Although it is not as well -known as its sister restaurant and bar Cowgirl (reviewed on TGP by Carolyn Onofrey in 2010) located in the West Village, Cowgirl SeaHorse is one of the best well kept secrets in Manhattan and a popular neighborhood favorite. Located at the South Street Seaport in the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge, the “make yourself at home” atmosphere, beachy décor and friendly (and generously pouring I might add) bartenders and staff make this place an every-day escape from the fast paced New York streets. Buy one get one free happy hours seven days a week, $2 Taco Tuesdays, housemade frozen Maragaritas (including prickly pear and blood orange flavors) and an overall reasonably priced and surprisingly diverse menu are what you will find at the Cowgirl Seahorse.

Pulled pork sandwich with a side of hush puppies and vinegar based cole slaw.

There are several menu items that are complete must haves. My first culinary experience at the Seahorse involved devouring the best pulled pork sandwich I had ever tasted.  The vinegar based barbeque sauce is the perfect combination of tangy and sweet. It is flavorful enough to only need a small side to top your pork with. Throw in a side of homemade hush puppies, and the Seahorse had a very happy customer. It took a few visits for me to move on from the pulled pork, but once I did, I certainly did not regret stepping outside of my pork comfort zone. The grilled fish tacos are the most popular menu item, and rightfully so. The light tacos (served grilled or fried, go with grilled) are topped with a light, refreshing mango salsa.

Lastly, one of my mantras of menu ordering is to never order something that I could easily make at home. After all, doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of eating out in the first place? In staying true to my beliefs, I very rarely order salads at a restaurant. Unless of course it is the All Chopped Up salad at the Seahorse. I don’t know what kind of addictive substances they put in their lemon poppy seed vinaigrette dressing, but it’s working. However, if your boss is J. Peterman and you need to be drug tested for your upcoming business trip to Africa, wait until your next visit for the All Chopped Up. (Hopefully we have some Seinfeld fans out there, otherwise that reference was totally wasted).

The only warning I leave you with is expect to wait awhile for your food. If you are in a hurry, the Seahorse isn’t for you. Perhaps the long wait for food is just part of the laid-back, vacation style vibe of the whole place. (Although the black-eyed pea salsa and homemade tortilla chips they often set down complimentary at your table paired with one of the aforementioned frozen margaritas make the wait a lot more enjoyable).

Because of its location, expect to find a large Wall Street happy hour crowd that does not seem so Wall Street at all. Instead of heading  to the over-crowded, suit flooded Stone Street, meander over to the Cowgirl Seahorse for a surprise that will keep you coming back for more. Worth the trip downtown for non-neighborhood locals or for tourists soaking in the sights at the South Street Seaport.

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One of Manhattan's best-kept secrets – Review of The Cowgirl Seahorse

BY ERIN PALISIN

The Cowgirl Seahorse
259 Front St.
Financial District
(212) 608-7873 / www.cowgirlseahorse.com

Prickly Pear Frozen Margarita

Although it is not as well -known as its sister restaurant and bar Cowgirl (reviewed on TGP by Carolyn Onofrey in 2010) located in the West Village, Cowgirl SeaHorse is one of the best well kept secrets in Manhattan and a popular neighborhood favorite. Located at the South Street Seaport in the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge, the “make yourself at home” atmosphere, beachy décor and friendly (and generously pouring I might add) bartenders and staff make this place an every-day escape from the fast paced New York streets. Buy one get one free happy hours seven days a week, $2 Taco Tuesdays, housemade frozen Maragaritas (including prickly pear and blood orange flavors) and an overall reasonably priced and surprisingly diverse menu are what you will find at the Cowgirl Seahorse.

Pulled pork sandwich with a side of hush puppies and vinegar based cole slaw.

There are several menu items that are complete must haves. My first culinary experience at the Seahorse involved devouring the best pulled pork sandwich I had ever tasted.  The vinegar based barbeque sauce is the perfect combination of tangy and sweet. It is flavorful enough to only need a small side to top your pork with. Throw in a side of homemade hush puppies, and the Seahorse had a very happy customer. It took a few visits for me to move on from the pulled pork, but once I did, I certainly did not regret stepping outside of my pork comfort zone. The grilled fish tacos are the most popular menu item, and rightfully so. The light tacos (served grilled or fried, go with grilled) are topped with a light, refreshing mango salsa.

Lastly, one of my mantras of menu ordering is to never order something that I could easily make at home. After all, doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of eating out in the first place? In staying true to my beliefs, I very rarely order salads at a restaurant. Unless of course it is the All Chopped Up salad at the Seahorse. I don’t know what kind of addictive substances they put in their lemon poppy seed vinaigrette dressing, but it’s working. However, if your boss is J. Peterman and you need to be drug tested for your upcoming business trip to Africa, wait until your next visit for the All Chopped Up. (Hopefully we have some Seinfeld fans out there, otherwise that reference was totally wasted).

The only warning I leave you with is expect to wait awhile for your food. If you are in a hurry, the Seahorse isn’t for you. Perhaps the long wait for food is just part of the laid-back, vacation style vibe of the whole place. (Although the black-eyed pea salsa and homemade tortilla chips they often set down complimentary at your table paired with one of the aforementioned frozen margaritas make the wait a lot more enjoyable).

Because of its location, expect to find a large Wall Street happy hour crowd that does not seem so Wall Street at all. Instead of heading  to the over-crowded, suit flooded Stone Street, meander over to the Cowgirl Seahorse for a surprise that will keep you coming back for more. Worth the trip downtown for non-neighborhood locals or for tourists soaking in the sights at the South Street Seaport.

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Mexican comfort food at comforting prices – Review of Ranchito del Agave

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

El Ranchito del Agave
476 9th Avenue
Midtown West
212-904-1198

As I’ve said before, and can’t stop talking about, the strip of 9th Avenue that lies in the shadow of Port Authority is a surprising gold mine of restaurants and food purveyors alike. Between 36th and 37th streets lies El Ranchito del Agave. It doesn’t look like much from the outside. A hand written sign displaying key menu items for the day and advertising the 8 dollar all-you-can-eat buffet leads you to a scantly decorated sandwich counter. Walking down a narrow hallway to the side brings you to a homey dining room with bright murals of Mexico lining the walls.

Buffet spread at El Ranchito – Black beans, rice, fried pork, enchiladas, sautéed string beans and chicken with tomatillo sauce

Buffet spread at El Ranchito – Black beans, rice, fried pork, enchiladas, sautéed string beans and chicken with tomatillo sauce

Although I’ve only had the buffet at El Ranchito del Agave, a rotating selection of home style treats like mole poblano, fried fish, enchiladas, stewed pork, and the fluffiest rice I have ever eaten, I can only imagine that their made-to-order selection is even better.

It’s no frills atmosphere and terra cotta colored tile flooring alongside the nothing fancy, but just good food is comforting and a great escape from the fast paced and crazy city outside. It is never busy at El Ranchito (they do most of their business via take out), but the few old Mexican men hunched over their plates in the corners of the room tell me that this place is the real deal.

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El Cinco is Wild – How to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo in New York City

Happy Cinco de Mayo!  Make it mas loco!

In need of ideas? Click on the image below, courtesy of Murph’s Guide, for some Cuervolicious celebrations throughout the city.

http://cincodemayonyc.com/

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Small Joint’s Tacos Hit a Homerun: A Review of Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos

BY BETH KAISERMAN

Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos
271 Starr St.
Bushwick, Brooklyn
718-456-3422

Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos, a little shack in Bushwick, cooks up the cheapest, most delicious tacos I’ve found yet in New York City. The ingredients are fresh, from the house-made corn tortillas to the crunchy lettuce that complements the spicy Mexican flavors. [Read more...]