Dios mio, these tacos are worth a trip to New York
Today I learned how to cook the tasty dish, Pescado a la Veracruzana, at my favourite Mexican restaurant. That was at midday. It’s nearly midnight in New York and I’m still on a high. Sustaining this level of ecstasy usually costs a lot more than what I paid for lunch.
Problem is I won’t be able to get my Mexican hit once I’m back home. And so I planted a seed. Open up an offshoot in Sydney where demand for good, authentic Mexican food far outstrips supply, I recommended to Arturo, the chef-owner at Chavela’s.
Don’t get me wrong. A tasty Guzman y Gomez burrito is awesome for capping a night out at Kings Cross, carbing up over lunch in Martin Place or nursing a hangover on a Sunday northside at Crows Nest. But a culinary experience it ain’t.
Sydneysiders, I hope for your sake that Arturo takes his business down under. If not, then here’s a taste of what you’re missing.
It’s hard to separate the food from the context, so let’s start with the location of the restaurant, Franklin Avenue in Crown/Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. The five-minute stroll from the subway to the restaurant gives you a brief chapter in the story of the evolution of New York which, like Madonna, constantly reinvents itself, as if afraid of becoming dull.
Just within the past twelve months, these businesses have set up shop on the main commercial strip on Franklin: a liquor store called Wino, a woodfire pizzeria, a contemporary take on an old-fashioned candy shop, a bar that I believe used to be a nondescript office space, and Chavela’s itself, which relocated here after it outgrew its original venue.
Inside the trendier stores, you can typically find Occupy Wall Street calls to action alongside ads on personal training, vintage clothing and standup comedy shows.
More than mere traces of the seedy underbelly of Crown Heights remain, under the new shiny veneer of Brooklyn hipness. The neighbourhood wouldn’t be hip if it were to totally lose its edginess. At night, police patrol cars make their presence felt. Locals talk about witnessing gang initiation rituals which were regularly held nearby only a few years ago, and say there are walls that are still pockmarked from bullet shots (not that I’ve seen these).
Chavela’s is one of the hubs where the hipsters congregate. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations so on the weekends the waitlisted would-be diners patiently chat outside on the footpath, setting the tone for the buzzy atmosphere inside.
Having been to Chavela’s eight times in as many weeks, for quiet lunches on my own ($5.95 specials), happy hour drinks with friends ($5 margaritas, $2 tacos) and late-night feasts, I have eaten alongside a good cross-section of the clientele.
I’ve met a student who’s learning Sanskrit. Numerous times I’ve sat next to lesbian couples. At the bar, which is lovingly adorned with handpainted tiles and a quirky miniature human skeleton in traditional dress, I’ve chatted with a dancer, an entrepreneur and two retired elderly men. I’ve watched a young giggly couple slowly get drunk on tequila (the restaurant’s tequila and mezcal list takes up an entire page on the menu). They both looked a tad overdressed. She had a bunch of flowers on the table, which looked very much like a wedding bouquet. I reveled in their anti-establishmentarianism.
Scene set. Onto the service. Chavela’s wait staff are unfailingly attentive and friendly. The bartender’s dimples suggestive-sell better than the cookie-cutter-trained fifteen-year-olds at McDonalds. And of course there is Arturo, the most amiable chef I have come across.
Before letting my husband and me into his kitchen for today’s class, Arturo had already prepped the ingredients for the fish dish, and had even assembled the bits and pieces neatly on a plate, a sign of a fastidious chef. The recipe is deceptively simple — pan fry the fish, add tomatoes, capsicum, olives, capers, caramelized onions, broth and butter. I was sure there’s coconut milk in the dish but I was wrong. Plate with tomato rice, banana leaf, cabbage and coriander. I suspect the secret lies in getting the fish broth just right and, of course, timing is everything.
I wanted to learn how to cook the tamale as well, but alas not today. As it was, we had encroached on prep time. The kitchen staff were starting to look antsy.
Doing a cooking class was on my to-do list for my extended sojourn. Thanks to Arturo and Chavela’s for making it happen.