BY ELENA MANCINI
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.