Review: Cascabel Tacqueria (Upper East Side location), NYC

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One of my favorite newer restaurants in New York isn't somewhere I'd recommend first-time visitors to Manhattan go. It isn't pricey. It doesn't have amazing service. Cleanliness can hardly be counted as a strong suit either (not that it's dirty; it's definitely not dirty; but I wouldn't eat anything that fell off the plate, and maybe I wiped off my knife and fork before tucking into my most recent meal). And a big part of why I love this place is for all those things that it isn't.

But I love it most of all for the luchador masks.

Go to Cascabel Tacqueria (Upper East Side location) in Manhattan, and take a good ten minutes to absorb the art on the walls. Dozens of hand-painted, square canvases depict luchadores, or Mexican wrestlers, in masks. Los luchadores wear skin-tight face masks in yellow, fire-engine red, gleaming white stripes, azul (in Spanish, the word reminds me of vividness of the Caribbean, which is appropriate here), verde (green, but lush with life like vegetation).

Spend 10 minutes with the paintings before you sit down to a wobbly square table tightly packed into the main floor, or the raised communal table with high stools stretching the length of the room that feels more like a workbench than a place to eat dinner. Poke at what's been left for your to find: the salsas and sauces, the tin canister where the forks live, the napkin holder marked with greasy finger prints.

You'll have plenty of time to order, or you won't, as Cascabel isn't the kind of place that puts much thought into how long you might mull over the menu or when you'd be ready to order a drink. It happens when it happens, maybe too swiftly, maybe too slowly, but because you're not in the kind of place where these things matter, these things simply don't matter.

You could order a beer from a decent selection of microbrews listed in chalk on the back wall, or you could ask for a glass of horchata ($4). Save your water glass, too, though, as you'll need it to cut the overpowering sweetness of that syrupy rice-based drink.

The tacos, which are not entirely devoid of fusion but still keep to Mexican ideas, rightly take center stage on the menu. You might find oyster mushrooms amidst your carne asada or a dash of garlic oil coating the lengua, but nothing is far-fetched. The most adventurous combination might be yellowfin tuna belly with hearts of palm and olives.

I had dinner there once, and lunch on a second visit, where the soup ($6) caught my attention. "How big is it? Will it be enough?" I asked. The server assured me it was ample and suggested maybe a taco to go with it to finish filling me up. But it certainly wasn't necessary. The simple soup was decorated like a Christmas tree with so many adornments, an enormous dried pepper, tortilla crisps, queso fresca, cilantro, lime... Alongside a tall glass of the sticky horchata, the sopa was plenty for lunch.

Taking forcefully restrained nibbles of Boyfriend's cemita poblano sandwich ($9.50) further opened my mind to the non-taco offerings on the menu. Braised and shredded pork, succulent with sauce, dribbled out of a golden sesame bun. Oaxaca cheese, more queso fresco, avocado, "champagne mango" (I'm assuming these are also called Manilla mangoes, or small Haitian yellow mangoes) added butteriness.

The waning winter light be damned, I look forward to spending a few more meals beneath the vibrant colors of those luchador masks.

Cascabel Tacqueria (Upper East Side location)
1538 Second Avenue at 80th Street
Open daily: 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.