Saturday, January 21, 2012

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

Image from http://tyneesoup.wordpress.com
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.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Restaurant Fatigue

Do you ever get restaurant fatigue? I do. A few times a year, I'm possessed by the need to not throw money away on restaurant dining, or I unexpectedly cannot justify eating another high-calorie, highfalutin meal that some team of people assembled. I don't even want to buy a pre-cut bagel.

Do other people feel this way sometimes, too?

For urbanites, like me, eating out is not merely a recreational experience, although it very often is that as well. It's part and parcel of city culture. It's a mentality. We are too busy working, commuting, socializing, volunteering, participating, exercising, studying, to cook food for ourselves three times a day. 

Plus, a lot of city people don't own cars, so we don't buy groceries in the same vast quantity that suburban and rural Americans do. We buy what we can carry (the truly dedicated use those hideous push-carts to haul home more), always knowing that there is some corner store or deli where we can buy milk later if we've forgotten it, at any hour. And if all else fails, Happy Garden or A New Good One or Double Happiness will be open. We can always order Chinese.

So, we eat out for a number of reasons, but the gist of it is: Eating out is part of city culture.

But it gets tiresome, sometimes, and feels futile. You know that worrisome feeling you get when you travel and you stop into a restaurant that from the outside looks fine, but from the inside looks like a tourist trap and you realize you're about to be swindled into eating sub-mediocre but overpriced food? That's how I occasionally feel about restaurants in general, and not that they have poor quality food, but that there is something about eating at restaurants that is against my best interest. It's expensive and unnecessary. The portions are huge. The nutritional data isn't in my favor. What am I paying for exactly again?

Restaurant food should be eaten rarely. 

But, like I say, that's not how it works in a city like New York. When Mayor Bloomberg wanted to ban trans fats in restaurants, he argued that New Yorkers rely on restaurant food as sustenance (that is, eating out is not a luxury for most people; it's a way of life).

Lately, we've been eating at home a lot more and spending less time chasing fine dining in general. When we do go somewhere special, we make sure it's special, a place we are interested in for the food, atmosphere, decor, and drinks. Both Boyfriend and I brown-bag our lunch most days (I'd guess I eat lunch out once a month). And on the weekends or a Friday night when neither of us wants to cook, we usually do weigh our options before deciding whether to go out.

...

I've just made plans to go to Apiary with some friends. At least it's not for another week. I have time to mentally recuperate between now and then.