Thursday, May 1, 2008

would you eat lunch from this man?

Photo credit: Ben Stechschulte, New York Magazine

Would you eat a lunch from this man?

Me? Hell no. No offense, Esquites Man (located on Fifth Ave nr. 53rd Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn), but I don't trust your esquites. Even though New York Magazine calls your fare "irresistible Mexico City street snack of corn kernels sautéed in butter and lard or vegetable oil and flavored with fresh epazote", I can't help but notice you're serving them out of a pilfered shopping cart from Lowe's. It irks me that epazote means "dirty skunk." I might be on a budget, but I'm not so broke that I'll eat a ladlefull of soggy corn served in a styrofoam cup from an old orange watercooler. Yikes.

(Not that I don't love how -- in such quintessentially New York fashion -- the Esquites Man got a shout-out as one of the 20 Best Food Carts in the city. ¡Bravo!)

Enter the Calexico Cart in SoHo on Wooster Street near Prince. Three SoCal brothers prop up shop on one of the cities most bustling and hustling street corners, bringing along with them the sweet, spicy flavors of Cal-Mex cuisine to us Eastcoasters, so far from the southern border:

In the middle of the California desert, about 2 hours from the coast, you’ll find twin cities straddling the border of California and Mexico. The city on the Mexican side is called Mexicali; the one on the California side is called Calexico. Everything about the place is a mix of California and Mexico – especially its food. Equal parts Mexican taqueria and American Barbecue Pit, Calexico’s cuisine is down-to-earth and full of flavor, familiar and unique at the same time. When we came to New York we were blown away by the food. But for all its great restaurants, we couldn’t find anything that quite matched the flavors of Calexico. So we took it upon ourselves to introduce NYC to Calexico style cooking.

So finally, after passing by the cheery orange-and-yellow cart dozens of times and lusting after the meaty aroma coming from the grill, I decided to try it. Armed with my colleague from work and another friend who recently moved here from Mexico, I figured that we -- the two frugal gourmets and the authentic connoisseur -- would be ready to determine whether or not these guys were the real deal, or just another bunch of wheeler-dealers-on-wheels.

We discovered that the Calexico Cart is a little gem. The grill is manned by one guy, another one plates and garnishes, and the third takes orders from customers on a little waiter's pad. The wait time for food is anywhere from 5-10 mins because everything is made fresh for each customer's order. Street diners choose from three different formulas: soft corn tortilla tacos ($2.50 - $4 each), quesadillas ($4 - $7 each) or burritos ($4 - $7 each). Each formula can be made with pollo asado, calexio carne asada, chipotle pork, or vegetarian black beans. The chicken and the steak are dressed with pico de gallo and avocado sauce, while the pork and the vegetarian are dressed with tomatillo salsa and mexican crema. For about $2 extra, you can turn your meal into a full plate, complete with mexican rice and beans and a scoop of guacamole. Sides are also available for an extra, small charge. There are daily specials available too that take adventurous culinary liberty with the menu's taco/quesadilla/burrito formats.

Between the three of us, we sampled the pollo, carne and vegetarian tacos. (I regret not tasting the pork... definitely next time!) The meat of the chicken and the steak was fresh, juicy and deliciously flavored by the smoky grill. The beans were rich and creamy, made spicy with lots of chipotle chili. The soft corn tacos were remarkably fresh, and their grainy tang of corn complemented the simple flavors of the meat. I can't help but wonder if they are hand-made. The pico de gallo was refreshing, and the tomato salsa was mild. I would have loved to have more of the condiments to brighten up the flavors a bit, but overall, I thought these bitty tacos were muy delicioso.

The taco is served with two tortillas in a small hot-dog-like carton. I couldn't help but question the necessity of two tortilla flats. But as I kept biting hungrily into the meat, the bread gave way to the juices and began to tear. Thanks to the care and attention of the Calexico Cart chefs, I had another tortilla to rescue the chicken from the boring fate of being eaten politely with a fork.

The boys of the Calexico Cart have something special going on. They pride themselves on making good food and go the extra effort to give it a gourmet touch and a charming presentation. Waiting for "street meat" may seem initially antithetical to the whole dining-cart experience. But the wait time creates a little community around the cart as the regulars say hey and get their usual orders, and newcomers scan the menu slowly, everyone waiting with hungry anticipation for their meal to be cooked. With its convivial atmosphere, high-quality food, and friendly staff, the Calexico Cart is an outdoor restaurant and a neighborhood phenomenon. Reservations are not accepted, and seating is limited on the steps of the Apple Store and J. Crew.

One taste of a taco tells you that these SoCal boys love to cook -- and we New Yorkers are so glad they've expatriated from the California Republic to set up cart on these streets that are as much our dining room as they are our home.

The Calexico Cart
Wooster Street, nr. Prince
SoHo, New York

MexiCali cuisine, $2.50 - $8

Speaking of Mexican Food and California, see this article from the 5/2/08 online edition of The New York Times: Hungry Angelenos Rally Around the Taco


Anonymous said...

It was the perfect day to have Mexican food, today is a Holiday in Mexico, is "El dia del trabajo" that means: The day of work (or Work’s day!) and ironically nobody works on this day (day off)!

Foodista said...

I can't wait to try this place! I've passed it a bunch of times already on my lunch break and I know what you mean about a little community forming around it. I almost felt like a weirdo because I was staring at the menu w/o much experience. I want to be Calexico girl (and soon).

Foodista said...

P.S. - You gotta try the dessert truck. Now that's gourmet on a low budget!

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