Build-your-own tacos with the Cazuela Tasting
MexiQ (37-11 30th Ave., Astoria)
Open daily from 4pm
Want a comestible recipe for success? Open a restaurant in one of NYC's most eclectic culinary hotbeds (Astoria) that features a menu by a renowned chef (Iron Chef contestant, Julieta Ballesteros, of Crema and Los Feliz in Manhattan) blending a fusion of ultimate comfort cuisines (Southern and Mexican) with owners of successful Astoria establishments (Dino Philippou of Cavo & Dimitri Paloumbis of Break) and a management team that has recently been at the helm of such neighborhood favorites as Cavo and the Studio Square Beer Garden. With such an accomplished curriculum vitae from a restaurant before it even opens its doors, there undeniably comes a high degree of expectation.
Exposed brick walls, a mix of candlelight and the warm amber glow from the filaments of enormous cartoon-sized light bulbs on the ceiling, and a flawlessly über-attractive staff styled in denim and plaid like tequila-wielding Gap models make MexiQ feel like a hip, sexy, urban cowboy saloon. Overhead, a refreshingly diverse and enjoyable playlist croons tunes ranging from Regina Spektor to The Eagles that harmonizes pleasantly with the low hum of laughter and banter throughout the room. In a recessed far corner, a large group dips from assorted guacamole jazzed up with pork belly and lime-poached shrimp at a Mexican picnic table under an abstract luminescent wagon wheel chandelier by a flat screen television mounted behind a waterfall that runs from ceiling to floor. Just beyond a row of intimate dark-planked booths with steel-plated tabletops, singles mingle at the main bar, taking full advantage of the proximity to the 48 taps featuring craft beers, sports-broadcasting flat screens, and the temp-controlled tequila dispenser.
Besides the craft beer selection (a 4-7PM weekday happy hour features $3 Mexican beers and $5 margaritas), a colorful cocktail list boasts inventive concoctions such as a cherry cayenne manhattan, Agua Loca sangria, as well as passionfruit-jalapeno, Jim Beam-guava-chipotle, and watermelon margaritas (refreshingly delicious, and pictured above, with agave nectar and fresh melon puree).
Though I was initially turned off by the replacement of the typical basket of tortillas by the single six-inch tortilla presented with a mini-squeeze bottle of salsa roja, at the end of the meal I was actually grateful that I hadn't wasted my appetite on chips and salsa. Keep an open mind, and this simple amuse bouche actually hits the spot and gets the taste buds ready for the dishes to come.
An important bit of advice: ask your server which plates are better for sharing. Some of the dishes are clearly intended for multiple diners, such as the Ceviche Flight, which offers two mini-martini-glass-shots of two different ceviches, easily shared by two to four guests, and a killer deal at $14.
The octopus and shrimp ceviche blends ridiculously tender octopus and tangy lime-poached shrimp in spicy green olive tomato salsa. The crowning touch is a dollop of creamy avocado mousse and deliciously salty fried capers. A brilliant blend of colors, flavors, and textures.
The second ceviche is much lighter, with juicy pieces of citrus-marinated sea bass that almost taste like tender scallops, dressed with pickled onions and tomato. Though the menu lists a mango pico de gallo on the first ceviche, it actually topped this one, which in my opinion was the perfect pairing.
The Mac & Cheese is quite appropriately listed as an appetizer rather than a side dish, as it should be consumed before anything else. If you truly want to enjoy it properly, the subtle and exquisite blend of velvety white cheddar cheese, creme fraiche, delightfully crunchy herbed panko bread crumbs, and decadent white truffle oil should be devoured before you introduce your palate to the spicier and more piquant offerings on the menu, which might otherwise make this gourmet comfort dish seem less vibrant than it actually is. I added applewood smoked bacon for a little salt to cut the richness for an additional $2, but shrimp and huitlacoche (a mushroom relative that grows on corn) are also possible add-ins.
Somewhat misleadingly titled (though accurately described), the Fiesta Nachos are actually an 8 layer dip served with a large cone of tortillas for scooping as well as several blue and yellow corn strips as a garnish. I would have called this a Fiesta Dip or Pinata Dip, as nachos imply chips covered with toppings. Despite the technicality in wording, I loved that with each bite came a wonderfully different flavor and temperature combination, as it was nearly impossible to gather every ingredient with each scoop. Cool and velvety guacamole with salty green olives, spicy jalapenos, warm and creamy refried beans, sharp cheddar cheese, savory seasoned bite-sized cubes of chicken, mexican cream, and garden-fresh pico de gallo. Another dish perfect for sharing with the entire table.
Though they're listed as a side dish for only $4, the fried pickles make a perfect appetizer, as well. Four long spears of tart and tangy pickles are beautifully coated in a crispy and golden breading that miraculously holds on to each pickle with every bite. Be sure to dip them in the shot glass of southwestern cream that accompanies... One of the best deals on the menu.
Though I've yet to sample everything that tempts me on the menu, the pulled pork carnitas are something either I or my friends have ordered on every visit. Marinated in citrus and coca cola (the result is a tangy molasses), the braised pork is flawlessly tender, with a beautifully sweet and mildly spicy glaze. Served in a cast iron skillet and served with a heavenly dense jalapeno goat cheese corn bread, it ranks up there with some of the best pulled pork I've ever tasted. The presentation has changed slightly from the original menu, but if you ask your server, you'll get the original accompaniments to make mini-tacos, as you do with the Cazuela Tasting.
The MexiQ Cazuela Tasting is a smoked meat lovers dream, with three cast iron pots offering generous portions of the pork carnitas, as well as the tequila-oregano braised beef brisket, and the adobo-rubbed beer braised short ribs. Though the dish is $26, it comes with enough meat, expertly smoked in-house, to make nearly six jumbo sandwiches, and is intended to serve two to four guests.
Served with a generous amount of warm, soft corn tortillas, guacamole, mexican cream, salsa roja, and pickled jalapeno cabbage, it's an explosion of endless flavor combinations for building your own taquitos (see the image at the heading of this post).
I am extremely critical when it comes to fish, so trust me when I say that the Yacatan Style Chilean Sea Bass was the single most wonderful filet of sea bass I have ever enjoyed. Blackened to glorious perfection, the meat inside was juicy and tender, with a crisp outer shell of seasonings. The generous filet is served on a bed of chipotle mashed plantains which confused me deliciously. They look like smashed red potatoes, but tasted like a sweet tomato smash with hints of pepper and banana, the perfect accompaniment for the blackened sea bass, which is crowned with a tower of golden beer battered onion rings. Though the Mexican tartar sauce served alongside adds a welcome coolness to the dish, fish this tasty needs nothing at all. This is a plate I will order again and again.
For dessert, don't expect your abuela's tres leches. This deconstructed version of the classic three milk cake is actually a moist sponge cake topped with dulce de leche ice cream and drizzled with mango syrup. A shot glass of evaporated, condensed, and whole milks is poured over the cake table side by the server. With each forkful, you get all of the richness and sweetness of a tres leches without the soggy texture that can so easily be over-drenched. Think caramel mango shortcake with fresh blueberries and cream, and you'll be in heaven.
Another misleading title is the Pecan Pie, which I almost didn't order because I don't actually really enjoy pecan pie all that much (I love the buttery filling but sort of loathe the pecans). To my pleasant surprise, this was a phenomenal dessert that was really more of a sticky toffee and chocolate ganache torte, speckled throughout with crushed pecans. This warm gooey chocolate cake is served with a spiced english custard and fresh berries, and topped with vanilla ice cream. It's an exceptionally great finale.
Only open now for about a month, it seems that MexiQ is still ironing out some details and reworking a few components of what is turning out to be a delicious menu. The general manager explained to me that they are taking quite seriously the feedback they receive, both in the restaurant and on websites such as Yelp. "We really care about what customers are saying..." he explained. "For example, we have already lowered the prices of our sodas and coffees because of feedback. We're genuinely trying to listen to what our customers want, while maintaining our vision."
I've already been three times, and enjoyed exceptional service (ask for Michael or Erin), delicious food, and a very vibrant atmosphere. While I admire their commitment to revision, I hope they don't change too much. Because right now, it's a crazy-explosive-comfort-delicious blend of the American deep south and Mexico that I already quite love as it is.