Nestled under a nail salon, down just a few stairs, there lives an outpost of delicate seafood, with a touch of unexpected spice.
The thing most people will have heard of from Chef Andres Figueroa’s Mexican-inspired tapas menu is the crickets. I think most of the conversations will go something like this:
“It’s a new place where you can get crickets!” “Crickets? Really, did you try them?” “Sure did, and they were great, you should totally eat some.”
As the chef told us, it is part of his goal of bringing some of the (unfamiliar to most Americans) flavors and textures of Mexican street food to the streets of New York. Crunchy and salty with a hint of lime, crickets turn out to be an excellent hot sauce delivery vector, and one I hope my local sports bars stock in the future.
Still, a snack of crickets seems to be more a gimmick to get you in the door than an end in itself. And if the gimmick works on you, you’ll be glad it did, especially if you order heavily from Figueroa’s seafood offerings.
Figueroa once worked for Xerox, but he does not do any copying in his current role. Beginning with the Distrito Federal, he brings out unique combinations, in flavor, texture and heat. A mixed dish of shrimp, tilapia and warm sirloin, served with handmade tortillas, the Federal brings together three branches of food, with all the appropriate checks and balances. The meats are mixed with a smoky sauce, bringing out a full umami experience, while the warm tortilla and sirloin blend surprisingly well with a cool shrimp, presaging well the direction of his other seafood dishes.
Throughout the menu, texture is used well to highlight tastes and bring out the unexpected notes of otherwise familiar elements. The best use of texture comes in the Guerrero. A taco of raw tuna served with mango, habanero and a serrano mayo, it comes not on a standard tortilla, where the softness of the tuna might blend too easily into the soft corn, but on a thin slice of pickled jicama. The piquancy of the brine, along with the jicama’s natural soft flavor, provides a cool crisp crunch, offsetting the heat of the habanero, and the sushi grade raw tuna’s richness.
Another dish, the Sonora, also attempts to contrast textures and flavors, but does not succeed as well as the Guerrero. A mixture of shrimp and bacon, with cheese, avocado and chipotle mayo, it is presented in a pita instead of the familiar tortilla. The roughness of the pita provides a nice balance to the soft avocado, but the filling does not pop to the level of the tuna in the Guerrero (yes, I really liked the Guerrero). While a very nice dish, the Sonora just does not have as many deep subtle notes.
Moving inland, Figueroa’s subtlety with the seafood does not make the same impact in his meats. The Zacatecas, a tostada with steak and cheese, served with a salsa verde showed flashes of the combinatorial flair found in the seafood, but the beef proved a little too over-powering in its inherent beefiness to allow the smaller elements to come through. While thoroughly enjoyable, it was a bit of a let down after the deep layered flavors of the earlier dishes.
Finally, or rather, ultimately, or perhaps “good things end too quickly,” we had the flan. Sometimes flan can be a little gooey, or cloyingly sweet, or too hard. Not here. Soft without being pudding, solid without being cake, the flan capped the meal perfectly. Continuing the trend of subtle additional flavors, a dusting of cinnamon opened the experience. Following that the smooth custard, which melts nicely in your mouth. And the sauce, a wonderfully executed dulce de leche, dripping in caramel overtones, without any of the stickiness, rounded out the evening.
Throughout, Figueroa brings his heritage to the fore, while folding in high culinary technique, to highlight the quality of his ingredients, and surprising the palate with innovative combinations. The subtle textures and flavors of seafood allow the carefully chosen dichotomies to shine, and ultimately the restaurant becomes more than just “the place with the crickets”
Oh, and this summer he’ll be opening a window to the street, to serve cricket quesadillas to passing New Yorkers. For those who prefer to keep their insects in the walls of their apartments, there will be bugless street food too. But where’s the fun in that?
Antojéria La Popular: 50 Spring Street, New York, NY
by Nancy Ellison