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Conversation might be something you enjoy doing, and I’ll go out on a limb here and posit that it might be something you enjoy doing over a meal. Sometimes the conversation can be light—just small talk, this and that, what movies have you seen, what books have you read, a bit of gossip. Other times it can be more detailed, catching up on work, kids, the week’s ups and downs. Then there are times the dialogue can grow more serious, when life throws you a curve ball, and there’s sickness, loss, grief, or heartbreak. Going out for a meal and talking it through with a close friend can be the relief you’re looking for.Review By: Andrea Strong
Whatever sort of conversation you’re up for, you will not be able to do have it at Cabrito. No, talking is impossible. Well, let me rephrase. Talking is indeed possible. Hearing, however, is not. The place is a monster noise chamber, akin to dining on a rumbling seat on an old A train heading full speed ahead. But it’s also a super friendly and festive Mexican cantina that happens to serve terrific food. I’ve been to Cabrito a couple of times now, and I want to go back, but do I dare when the place is populated with more than two other people? No. And the thing is, the place is always packed because there’s nothing that says summer like a nice cold juicy margarita and a couple of delicious two-handed tacos. So I face a dilemma. I may have to return with pen and paper, and resort to passing notes to my dining mates, or simply dine there alone when hearing is not as important. In any case, I do recommend that you try Cabrito, which opened in the former BarFry space about a month ago, but do so on a night where you might be able to get by with minimum conversational requirements.
The first time at Cabrito, Kiri and I were in on a Sunday night when it was relatively calm. We started with a bowl of guacamole and a couple of Sandias to drink—well-balanced mezcal-soaked watermelon cocktails that are lightly sweet and sneakily smoky, and that go down way too easily. Yeah, they’re good. When the guacamole arrived ($8), I asked our waitress for hot sauce. I did so without even tasting it, because I like my guacamole to have a good kick and often times at restaurants where it’s pre-made and not done tableside to my spice specifications, it’s just not hot enough for me. While she was fetching us a bottle of red and green, I dipped a warm tortilla chip (just fried and lightly salted) into the soft green mound and took a bite. I immediately waved the waitress away. The hot sauce was not needed. This guac is clearly seasoned by an expert hand: it’s got lime, salt, and heat in the exact proportions. That hand belongs to chef David Schuttenberg, a veteran of Craft and most recently Zac Pelaccio’s Fatty Crab. He’s got a gift for well-seasoned food, and this gift comes across clearly in his well-edited menu of tacos, cemitas (traditional sandwiches from Puebla, served on soft rolls the size and shape of a Big Mac), huaraches (open faced masa pancakes loaded up with taco-type toppings), and house specials like carnitas, enchiladas, and chicharrones. If anything, at times his food is just slightly salty, but it’s always got the right amount of heat—enough to make your lips tingle, but not enough to make you break out into a full-on sweat and reach for the water.
Carnitas are a dish I first tried in Michuacan, in Central Mexico, where whole pigs are roasted at roadside stands in old barrels and served on soft hot corn tortillas made before your eyes on flat-top griddles, and then dressed with avocados, crema, salsa verde and fresh wedges of lime. While those will never be beat, Schuttenberg comes close, with pork that’s been cooked for about a dozen hours and served chopped up with warm flour tortillas and salsa verde ($18). His tomato and chile-braised chicken enchiladas ($14) are wonderful. They’re surprisingly delicate, more like filled crepes than overly-cheesey tubes that can be more of the enchilada norm. The chicken is tender and moist, shredded like a pulled pork filling, and the tortilla “crepes” are sauced in a bright and tangy salsa verde and a bit of crema. Very impressive.
To our main courses we added an order of black beans ($4.50) that were cooked so the beans were creamy, but unfortunately were way too salty, and a cast iron skillet of Mexican rice ($4.50) that’s a really nice change from the usual. It’s fluffy and silky in texture, and redish in color, seasoned with epazote. I brought the leftovers home and has some for lunch the next day, with the leftover carnitas. Yum.
My second visit to Cabrito was with Craig; it was a Thursday night, rather than a Sunday. The place was buzzing and much more crowded than my first visit. A hostess with long dark hair in a pretty bright blue dress took names at the wide open doors, and crowds gathered two-deep at the bar for pitchers of margaritas poured into glasses with salted rims perched with quartered limes. Craig was already drinking a cold pint when I arrived, and we were seated at a table toward the back, which was supposedly quieter than the mosh pit by the front door. Not so much. But there we sat, practically on top of the couple next to us, and screamed at each other over another surprisingly good meal in a Mexican noise chamber.
Schuttenberg’s hamachi starter is not necessarily “Mexican,” but it’s very good. Lightly seared sashimi-style slices of fish are plated on a puddle of caper mayo and then topped with toasted almonds and green olives and chile de arbol powder that gives the fish a little kick ($14). Tacos are served individually so you can make your own taco feast for dinner or just have one for an appetizer. We opted for the latter, and had a taco al carbon ($6). Tender slices of seared skirt steak marinated in chiles and garlic are piled in the center of a warm corn tortilla, and topped with some crema, cilantro, radish, and lime. Simple, and perfect.
We’d have ordered more tacos but we were trying to save some room for two main courses (and the portions are generous)—the red chili beef short rib ($18) and the carne enchilada huaraches ($14). The short rib is braised to falling from the bone softness and served with four tortillas for a make your own taco situation. I liked the idea of this dish, and certainly that beef was good and messy, but I think the kitchen should provide a bit more than a big shank of beef to fill those tortillas—a few accompaniments, a little rice, perhaps some pickled vegetables to cut the fat and give the beef a contrasting texture to work with, even just a few wedges of lime and some radishes would have been the little something extra that would’ve put the dish over the top. The same cannot be said of the huaraches, which needed nothing more than was offered. They’re accessorized to the hilt and looks like a huge salad when they arrive, topped with lettuce, cilantro, radishes and crema. Under the mass of foliage you’ll uncover a generous heap of chili-steeped pulled pork (no hot sauce needed here either, as this pork is saturated with beautiful chili-driven heat) resting on a huarache—a masa pancake that’s thicker than a tortilla, and shaped like a wide oval as opposed to a circle. While it’s tempting to try to fold the huarache into a sort of taco formation for eating with your hands, you’ll make a big mess and lose half of it on your lap (or the lap of your neighbor). A knife and fork will have to be used.
Craig and I traded plates back and forth, almost polishing them off (an impressive feat), wiping sauce from our faces and taking long cool sips of our margaritas, and in between eating and drinking, tried in vain to have a conversation over the din. My Bibi has been in the hospital, and I had just returned from visiting her. There were things I wanted to say to Craig and things I wanted to hear him say to me. Perhaps Cabrito was not the ideal place to converse over a meal. We managed, I guess. But mostly he just held my hand. Sometimes, though, that’s really enough.
Neighborhood: West Village
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