Wednesday, August 31, 2005

West Village, New York, NY - Mexicana Mama

New York is a hotbed of CIA's best (although you really couldn't go wrong with the majority of chefs from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America), and the owner of this dazzling Latin jewel in the West Village graduated #1 of her class. I once complained that there was no Mexican food to be had on the east coast, and there very well might be a substantial lack of such in Boston. But if you're lucky enough to be in the NY neighborhood of Mexicana Mama, you'll be treated to an experience that is both faultlessly authentic and that brushes your taste buds to the seventh heavens effortlessly.

I've noticed that the most delicious (although the word 'delicious' is far too trite to describe the warmth and singing beauty of the dishes at Mexicana Mama) food experiences I've had in NY are in cosy quartered slivers of restaurants that seat 30 people, maximum. The ambience is crammed into small lengths of space with complementing accessories, music, and artwork stretching up high walls. And so, with the high quality and obviously high demand, which reviews like this will only fuel, comes the unavoidable wait. I write this as a disclaimer of reality, although I did not experience it personally, as this time around J, a friend, and I visited one off-hour afternoon in the dead of winter.

We piled our coats onto high-perched pegs that seemed to be meant for 6-7' giants, and crowded around a brightly-festive table. Everything was a joyous burst of color and energy, from the decorations to the fabulous food we were about to launch into.

We began our lunch with airy tortilla chips charmingly presented in a cut-off brown paper bag, and a heavenly salsa whose innocuous cheesy-orange color disguised its mind-blowing, richly deep smooth flavor, supporting spices, and completely unidentifiable essence. My tongue curled helplessly in speechless wonder around this indescribable source of bliss, amazed that it had never before encountered any of the components of the salsa; together, or individually. This was a truly amazing beginning to the meal, and everything that followed was equally stunning.

Curious, I went for a Mexican drink, intensely pomegranate-red and brightly tart. It would have been a lively counterpart of a truly fiery meal, but without such a foil, it was a bit too striking on its own. It was quite pretty, though, adding another burst of flavor and color to the party.

My companions had established this restaurant as one of their favorites long ago, so they knew the best things to get. I let them take the lead, and simply had fun tasting everything set in front of me. We made a second appetizer of one of the entrees: Queso Flameado. It was a sinfully-indulgent concoction of creamy white chihuahua cheese melted onto and around a heavily spiced pile of chili-laced, oil-soaked Northern-style chorizo. Wrapped up in a steamed corn tortilla with chunky guacamole (this is hands-on messy!), it tasted like rich, creamy, fiery heaven. Who cared about the cholesterol hell reflected back in the red oil? This was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities where you firmly blindfolded your conscience and then dug in deeply.

Our friend, a regular of Mexicana Mama, loved the food so much that he said his first dates would have a trial run there; if the female didn't share the same joy in the meal that he did, that would also be their last date. Not a bad philosophy to live by. Might as well have a meal that you know you'll enjoy, regardless of the company!

He swore by the burritos here, specifically, a massive barbacoa burrito wrapped and toasted to render the flaky flour tortilla skin lightly crispy. Inside were the most tender, flavorful strips of beef harmonizing beautifully with black beans, smooth, melted chihuahua cheese, chipotle potatoes, and creamy, sweet butternut squash. I thought the butternut squash addition was ingenius; one of those "now why didn't anyone think of that before?" delightful discoveries, but perhaps the more meaningful testimonal was that our friend, an all-meat and no-vegetable type of person, never even noticed that there were vegetables in his beloved burrito! And at just below $12, this dish is a great value; good luck finishing it if you have appetizers and desserts to take into consideration as well!

J had a fiesta going on in his plate; the Arrachero a la Mexicana dish at $18.95. It offered a rainbow of flavors, with succulent hanger steak buried in a trio of sauces including a vibrant mole sauce, light Mexican cream and lightly seasoned cubed tomato, and a hearty sauce of roasted poblano, chili morita, and chorizo that provided the perfect kick. Mexican rice and black beans accompanied in a side dish. This dish was amazing, with so many fantastic taste sensations piled expertly on top of one another, but never becoming overwhelming. I only have the memory of two bites of this dish, before he claimed the rest. I don't blame him. ;)

By the time I got to my dish, I was completely dazed and satiated by the incredible rush of flavors that had already seduced my tongue. But I enjoyed my $14 Taco de Puerco en salsa chili Cascabel lunch equally, both that day, and the following day when I was happily reunited with it as leftovers that had lost surprisingly little of the vivaciousness of the previous day. Three soft corn tortillas pointed to the sky with their generous offering of robust chile-roasted pork filling wrapped with chihuahua cheese and black beans, showered with mild red onions and cilantro, and firmly supported by Mexican rice and guacamole-like avocado. The pork was on the lean side (both the hanger steak and the steak burrito were richer in fat), but tender and moist. The chili didn't seep into the pork as much as it had the beef, but the overall courtship of textures and flavor was successful and deeply satisfying.

J had the fortune of re-visiting the restaurant to catch up with his friend, the owner, at which time he had the New York shell steak en adobo de chile meco. In his words:

"It was NY shell steak with a meco rub of red chiles, lime juice, cumin and a touch of honey, and topped with black beans and corn relish. It was pretty darn good. Tender, tasty and just spicy enough to get the sweat beads rolling. Another fabulous serving of Mexicana Mama.

The staff is hip, cool, and friendly. Service is fast and a little hectic and the seating a bit cramped, but hey, what can you expect when more people want to eat than there are tables?"

Mexicana Mama had been touted to me as the best Mexican place he'd ever been to, and now I have to say the same. I absolutely loved it, and know that you would as well. Whoever would have imagined that such incredible, authentic food of a tropical, sun-soaked country could be found at such a high lateral geographical locale, one chilly silver-blue winter afternoon?

Mexicana Mama
525 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10014-2607


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