One of the first Mexican eateries in New York City opened in midtown in 1938. Its proprietor, Juvencio Maldonado, who had sailed over from the Yucatán Peninsula, called his place Xochitl, after an Aztec goddess. He patented a mechanical taco-shell fryer and printed a glossary of imported culinary terms for his befuddled diners. (Tortilla: “a flat, round corn cake, about 6 inches in diameter and 1/16 inch thick . . . can be bent or rolled, as we shall explain.”) For decades, Xochitl was just about the only game in town. The scene ramified in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, when the city’s Mexican population grew eightfold. New arrivals would launch taco trucks, tamale pushcarts, panaderías, tortilla factories, and more than a thousand professional kitchens in the five boroughs. If a certain French tire manufacturer is to be believed, among the best of them today is Casa Enrique, which opened a decade ago, in Queens, and is the first Mexican restaurant in the city to have been awarded a Michelin star—every year since 2015.
The mole de Piaxtla, poured over stewed chicken, calls for two dozen ingredients, including chilies (five types), almonds, raisins, figs, sesame seeds, plantains, and cocoa powder.
Many years before the chef Cosme Aguilar opened Casa Enrique—before he toiled in French restaurants as a porter and then a line cook and then a chef, before his first career, as a teen-age car mechanic, before even his birth—his mother ran a small restaurant in Chiapas. She passed away in 1983, when he was a boy. Twenty-nine years later, when Aguilar decided to open his own place, he turned to a notebook of recipes she left behind. One of the first dishes he attempted to re-create was her albondigas—meatballs, each with a hard-boiled egg in its center, sunk in a smoky tomato sauce prepared with onion, garlic, and chipotle chilies. “The first time I made albondigas here, it really got me,” Aguilar said. “I hadn’t tasted that meal in a very long time, and I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s just like my mom used to make.’ I almost cried.”
Whatever you order comes with a hot pot of steaming tortillas, and many dishes lend themselves to imaginative reassembly in the form of tacos.
Aguilar has a dozen stories like that. “Everybody who wants to open a Mexican restaurant in New York,” he said, “they want to go fancy—they use truffles.” He was wearing a mask, but you could tell he made a face when he said “truffles.” Aguilar is not above aesthetic embellishment, but he also believes that overbold improvisation on traditional fare too often spins out, crashing over the guardrails of tribute and into the pit of cultural snobbery. He, instead, elects to go deeper. His menu is his memoir.
Many of the chef Cosme Aguilar’s dishes are adaptations of family recipes. Years before he was born, his mother ran a small restaurant in Chiapas.
Aguilar’s mole de Piaxtla, poured over stewed chicken, is an homage both to his father’s home town and to the memory of his paternal grandmother, who would press into service anyone within shouting distance whenever she made mole. “Someone would be peeling the chilies, someone else would be toasting the nuts,” he said. “It’s a lot of ingredients!” Aguilar’s version has twenty-four, including chilies (five types), almonds, raisins, figs, sesame seeds, plantains, and cocoa powder. Atop the accompanying yellow rice, he throws down a dare: a single mature chile de árbol (Scoville heat units: up to 65,000). A frozen blueberry margarita, or several, is some comfort here.
The heartiest winter dish, Pozole de Mi Tía, is a shredded-pork-and-hominy soup topped with julienned radish, with fixings (avocado, onion, cilantro) on the side.
Whatever you order comes with a hot pot of steaming tortillas, and many dishes lend themselves to imaginative reassembly in the form of tacos. Take the cochinito Chiapaneco, a love letter to Aguilar’s native Chiapas, for which he marinates pork ribs in apple-cider vinegar, guajillo chilies, garlic, and fresh thyme before slow-roasting them for four hours. Once you’ve dispatched the ribs, what is to be done with the leftover marinade? Spoon it over a rice-and-beans medley and fold it into a tortilla, obviously.
The heartiest winter dish, a shredded-pork-and-hominy soup topped with julienned radish, appears on the menu as Pozole de Mi Tía. Aguilar won’t specify which aunt. “I have to be careful,” he said. “I have six aunts on my father’s side, and another six on my mother’s side.” A pause. “It’s a lot of aunts!” (Entrées $21-$36.) ♦