Chef: Mario Vivar
Cititour Review: Every semester, as some of you know, I teach an introduction to food writing class at mediabistro, an eight-week course where we cover the ins and outs of feature food writing, restaurant reviewing, and the (sometimes frustrating) dance between writer and editor. I like to celebrate the end of our eight weeks together with dinner, usually at a new place, with a chef whose food I like, that will be able to seat about 10-12 of us. Last week we decided to try Los Dados, the new Mexican restaurant from chef Sue Torres (Sueños) and partners Will Regan and David Rabin (Lotus, Double Seven).
Los Dados is a departure from the Sueños formula is several ways. First, it’s in the Meatpacking, not Chelsea, which necessitates a certain amount of scene. This is accomplished by atmospheric details like gothic candelabras, exposed brick walls, recessed sills displaying Mexican shrines to saints, roomy banquettes tucked into wall cubbies and alcoves, and lean communal tables. While Sueños feels festive and cheery, like lunchtime in a sunny Veracruz town, Los Dados feels sexy and perfectly suited for night, like a long (possibly drunken) dinner in the heartland of Mexico.
Aside from the décor and vibe, the menu at Los Dados is also a departure from Sue’s more modern and complex cooking at Sueños. At Los Dados, she’s bowing her head to regional home-cooking, to simpler dishes cooked by families in kitchens across Mexico—tacos ($14-$18), enchiladas ($13-$15), panuchos ($9), and more affordable, pared-down main courses like hanger steak glazed with tamarind over nopales and pasilla chile ($20), grilled salmon with a pumpkin seed pipian and fresh corn tamal ($18), and tilapia Veracruz with white bean puree and corn tortillas ($18). There’s a bare-bones humbleness to the food that perhaps some critics have seen as a decline in Torres’ skill. I see it as an attempt to do something different, and as a conscious departure from her food at Sueños. It’s not the same, but there’s still plenty to enjoy at Los Dados.
When I arrived, about half of my students were already seated, with bowls of guacamole and pitchers of sangria and house margaritas already littering the table. I know how to teach my kids, right? One of my students, Heather, had just written a piece comparing guacamole from various Mexican spots around town so after we all had tasted Los Dados’ version, we asked what she thought. “I love it. It’s great,” she said. “It has a nice kick, and it tastes really fresh.” I agree. This guac is creamy and chunky, with bits of tomato and onion lending both sweetness and sharpness to the mix. What’s more, it’s served with homemade soft tortillas and a basket of nicely salted, freshly fried corn tortilla chips that were among the best I’ve had. They’re thick enough to hold up a good heavy scoop of guac, and thin enough to be audibly crispy. While we were scooping up guacamole, bussers arrived with complimentary baskets of chips, served with three salsas—a smoky chipotle in a ramekin, and two squeeze bottles, one filled with vibrant salsa verde—limey and spicy at the same time—and a dark brick red salsa roja kicked up with Serrano chiles. This chip set-up goes a long way to get a night started off well. The drinks kept it going.
While I was all about the margaritas ($35 pitcher, $10 a glass)—fresh and tart, if just slightly too strong, Hannah was falling for the Sangria. “This is the best Sangria I’ve ever had,” she said, pouring herself a bit more from the carafe on the table ($45 pitcher, $10 a glass). “There’s no aftertaste of fruit punch and it’s really smooth. I could drink this out of a beer funnel.” Let me assure you that Hannah, who is very pretty, with straight shiny dark hair and perfectly manicured fingernails, is not someone I could ever see using a beer funnel, so that may give you an understanding of just how good this Sangria was.
But Sangria and House Margaritas really only make up a small percentage of the cocktail list that offers seven margarita variations including cucumber, strawberry-guava and hibiscus-blueberry, and drinks like The Dandy—Makers, strawberry, basil and honey ($11) and the Chili Palmer—42 Below Passion Fruit Vodka, passion fruit and Serrano chile. In short, if it’s great drinks and excellent chips and guac you’re after, the bar at Los Dados may become your future part-time residence.
Before I get to the details of the food, I need to point out that the team at Los Dados does need to work on service. This has been an issue since the beginning, and while things are certainly improved, the service still needs attention. I might as well have lit flares in the restaurant to get my water glass filled. I asked about seven different times and got nothing more than nice nods and a still empty water glass. Attentiveness is not a strength at the moment. However, a new manager has been installed and improvement will hopefully be forthcoming.
Now, let’s talk about the good parts of Los Dados. Let’s start with the shrimp ceviche ($15), which, while not a ceviche in the traditional sense, was hard to resist. Rather than a bath of lemon and lime citrus, Sue submerges a dozen or so juicy shrimp into a sort of hot cocktail sauce, then tops it off with cool chunks of avocado, and tall half-moon tortilla chips. The dish reminded me a bit of a nice spicy Bloody Mary, while Sasha said it made her think of a reinvented shrimp cocktail. In any case, I think the name ceviche is a misnomer because it raises an expectation for a clean citrus profile, not a hot and spicy cocktail sauce. As we spooned out the last few shrimp with our tortilla shovels, we decided to rename it Shrimp Cocktail 2.0.
Our next round of appetizers—the sweet plantain gordita ($8) and the panuchos Yucatecos ($9)—left the table murmuring a sea of Mmmms and Wows. What can I say? These women know how to express themselves. The gorditas are round and thick, about the size of hockey pucks, and are fashioned from sweet plantains (sort of like Arepas, as Heather pointed out) and then stuffed with Oaxacan white cheese and pan fried so the cheese oozes out in gobs when sliced in half. My favorite part of this dish was the sauce—a deeply flavored, cinnamony roasted tomato and chipotle sauce that left me feeling warm on the inside, like I’d just had a shot of whiskey. The panuchos (which translates to snack) are adorable crescent shaped corn cakes topped with a schmear of black beans, a luscious mound of braised and shredded achiote pork, and a garnish of cured red onions for a bit of brightness and punch.
As we passed around pitchers of margaritas (what round were we on?), I watched as oversized salads (Sue offers a selection of seven salads priced between $7 and $17) descended upon a table of women seated at the long communal table in the center of the dining room. It was then that I noticed that the restaurant was, well, filled with women. We had nine at our table, the table next to us was four, the one in the center at least eleven. The only men I could find were serving the salads. Wait, was that one sitting in the bar? It’s possible. While I’m not sure why there was such a shortage of men at the restaurant, I guess I’ll use this opportunity to alert all you single men out there to the quantity of hot women (eating salads) at Los Dados.
In any case, we were not eating salads. We were now eating tacos. The coconut cod were my favorite—perfectly cooked fish that’s practically creamy, and just sweet enough from the coconut, but balanced out with an avocado poblano salsa ($18). Our chicken tacos ($14) were rather dried out, but the meat was redeemed by a selection of sauces that could have revived cardboard—chile mecco (dried smoked jalapeno, aka chipotle), avocado salsa and pipian (with pumpkin seeds). Clearly, the strength of this kitchen is their sauces—deep and soulful, complex and almost chameleon like, changing in one bite from warm to hot to sweet. Beautiful is a word that comes to mind.
The shrimp and Yucatan pork tamale ($19) was also winning-—saucy pulled shredded pork secreted inside a steamed tamal like a filling for a sweet corn Twinkie, in a pool of ancho chile sauce that anchored a perimeter of grilled shrimp with tails flying in the air. On the side, we ordered some roasted corn on the cob ($5), which hacked into thirds, and dusted with cheese. It was demolished in minutes. Dainty, we’re not.
After all we’d consumed, we honestly had little room for more. But Monika, one of my students who is from Northern India, had made a batch of Divle (say Dee-va-lay), cookies made for Diwali—the Indian and Nepalese festival of lights. They were little crisped pancakes topped with toasted almonds with a sweet gloss of sugar. As we passed around the Tupperware of Monika’s cookies, Juli sent around photos of her kids (adorable and already foodies), Irina told us a little more about moving to America from Russia, and Sasha shared the story of her husband’s marriage proposal, while Tuula, Liz and I discussed my recent dinner at Hangawi, which Liz had written about for class as part of a round-up on Koreatown. Meanwhile, Barbara and Heather were commiserating about some stories they had pitched and were having trouble selling. “Welcome to the world of freelance writing,” I said, raising a glass. “It only took eight weeks, but you’ve officially arrived.”
Review By: Andrea Strong
Neighborhood: Meatpacking District
73 Gansevoort Street
New York, NY