August 15, 2011 | BITE: My Journal

We’re La Esquina. Who Are You?

It’s fluke, fresh and cool and citrusy. They should have peeled the cuke. Photo: Steven Richter
It’s fluke, fresh and cool and citrusy. They should have peeled the cuke. Photo: Steven Richter

       There are restaurants I’ve never gone to that New Yorkers love. Either they don’t take reservations or you need to know someone. If it’s Keith McNally, I just call. Lately I’ve called Ken Friedman too. (Confessions.) I don’t know La Esquina’s Serge Becker, except what Google claims to know and the Times Style observed of his mellowness in “At the Twilight of Night Life” last Thursday. But catty spoilsports say bridge and tunnel riders have the secret to the unmarked private cellar at La Esquina, so no reason I can’t wiggle my way in too.  A friend who DJs there says she’ll put my guy’s name on the list, not mention me. “You might want to eat fast because the DJ starts at 10 pm” she warns, knowing my annoyance levels.

Cutting through the kitchen gives it that Prohibition aura. Don’t slip.  Photo: Steven Richter.

       It’s a diner on sidewalk level.  People with no social aspirations are contentedly eating.

        “Have you ever been here before?” A man guarding a steel door with no handle snarls at our companions. (A little hostility always adds to the triumph when you actually enter). The woman with the list finds Steven’s name on it.

       “Have a good time,” calls the mercurial guard, suddenly purring.

Did I say it was dark? Wax-swollen candelabras are definitely needed. Photo: Steven Richter

       We shoulder through the kitchen into the blackness of an expansive bar area where gangly candelabra encrusted with melted wax cast haunted house light. “Your table is getting their check,” we’re told, prelude to a 20-minute wait.

Nicole’s drink has prestige booze from the lock box. See that rose behind her! Photo: Steven Richter

       “They’re looking at you,” our companion Nicole whispers. “Maybe we’ll be seated.” And then a table clears. A two for the four of us. “This is it?” A ceiling of moldering tar looms not far over my head – will it ooze or drip? There are red fire buckets hanging everywhere, decorative, I hope. Behind my banquette, it’s bare brick with a mural on white tile; in one corner, another big candelabra smothered in years of wax drip. A cupboard holds precious booze under lock and key. Christ on a cross not far away on the wall might look embarrassed if he weren’t in agony. As the art director of the legendary '80s nightclub Area, Becker trafficked in flamethrowers, skulls, and strobed electric chairs, but this is positively tame.

The high-priced hooch gets its own lockup. Photo: Steven Richter

       I feel more confident once I start sipping my blood orange frozen margarita. It’s big and I can taste the tequila, not always the case. Our companions tonight are young but the crowd makes her feel old, Nicole confides. We are surrounded mostly by tables of young women, flawless skin glowing blue in the light of their cell phones.

In my day we had the pill. These women have their phones. Photo: Steve Richter

       A second floor-walker arrives. “Take two tables, if you want more room,” we’re told. “They must know it’s you,” says Nicole.

        I guess so. Dishes we didn’t order – luscious roasted sea scallops with palmitos fired up with crispy garlic mojo and a tamal of stewed rooster in ancho-cherry escabeche - start emerging alongside those we did.  The huitlacohe quesadilla is simple, sloppy, but delicious. And the fluke ceviche is a layered attack of pickled carrots and Durango chilis that jumps from my mouth to my head.  Or is it the tequila?  I’ve scarcely sipped a third of my drink and I’m already dizzy. I’m not suggesting it was a Mickey.  Maybe just a Minnie.

The innocent look of my passion fruit margarita hides tequila pow. Photo: Steven Richter.

       Does someone think I’ll be a happier camper if I’m drunk?  Am I? 

        Our servers, a rotation of concerned co-conspirators, seem genuinely interested in helping our gluten-intolerant member navigate the menu. I’m sad to report that is not always the case on our shared tasting rounds.

Chicken and shrimp tacos (top), chipotle-guava ribs (left), rooster tamal. Photo: Steven Richter

       Surely it’s clear, sober or sloshed, that the tacos carnitos (pork shoulder cooked in condensed milk with huitlacoche puree and a tangy red sauce) are a hit. So is a chef’s whimsy of veal brisket in soft corn tortillas, though the pulled chicken rostizado tacos are boring and dry.  And it doesn’t matter how old the corn is or where it came from as far as I’m concerned, when it’s smeared with lime mayo and sprinkled with Cotija cheese and chile paste. I want one all for myself.

Sticky, charred ribs, with a chipotle afterkick and pickled veggies. Photo: Steven Richter

       When I say I love the fatty charred chipotle-chili-guava pork ribs, I’m talking good grub, obviously not serious cooking. Look at the bits of cucumber on that fluke. You need a dull knife to get that effect.  Big fat papas fritas and undercooked green beans (not to be confused with haricots verts for dos secondos) are the stars of the overcooked “Sunday Rotisserie Chicken” plate.

The fat fried potatoes are the stars of this rotisserie chicken dish.  Photo: Steven Richter

       It isn’t necessarily the nature of chile relleno to be slovenly. But this one, stuffed with quinoa, manchego cheese and calabaza squash, then splashed with tomato salsa is the definition of sprawl. Our pals don’t mind at all. I’m still sipping my potent drink but I’m sober enough to regret the graininess of the cheesecake flan and its too sweet syrup.

Just looking at this cheesecake flan, you can tell it’s too sweet. Photo: Steven Richter

       Still, we aren’t here for gastronomic epiphany.  We came to La Esquina for the drama of the Thursday night scene, to pretend we belonged, to speculate on the power of huitlacoche and Christ – like, you know, Snooki, do you think she could get a table? 

114 Kenmare between Kenmare & Lafayette. 646.613.7100. Lunch Monday through Sunday noon to 4:00 pm. Dinner Monday to Thursday 5:00 to 12 am. Friday and Saturday 5:00 to 1 am. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3:45 pm.