Mexican Eats: Barrio Chino's Impenetrable Mole
Navigating the arena of diners at Barrio Chino, a one-room, perpetually-packed Mexican restaurant in the Lower East Side is a little like a game of Tetris. There will be sliding out stools and shuffling around corners, scooting sideways to reach your perch. The paper lanterns that dangling overhead match the soft glow of dusk, which pours in through the French doors, open to the street. It's a bit of a scene in here, with a long list of names to add yours to before heading around the corner for a drink.
Back at the Barrio, everyone sips on tart grapefruit margaritas ($11). If you like painfully spicy beverages, the habeñero version, made with house-infused tequila, is a blitz to the throat. Groups of girls in heavy eye makeup pick at their sea bass ceviche, cured with lime and tomatoes ($10). The chips ($3) come with three different salsas: a roasted jalapeno and tomatillo salsa, flecked with bits of char; a blackish-red salsa made with dried pasilla chilies; and a bright red one, with chili de arbol, roasted garlic, and tomato. Hidden behind a golden wall is the galley kitchen which churns out tacos, enchiladas, and salads served on cheap, plastic Chinese plates, mostly to aid the drinking.
That is, unless you order the mole. A family recipe, ladled over chicken enchiladas ($15), it's a thick and grainy purée, dark and slow-moving. It's a different breed than many of the moles in town, barely spicy, heavy on the sesame, peanut, and cinnamon, with bitter notes and sweetness that tug at both ends. It'll take two to finish and two rounds of drinks. When the last pools of sauce are wiped away, a dragon emerges at the bottom of the plate, an auspicious sign of success.