Slideshow SLIDESHOW: Cocina Economica Mexico: The Upper West Side Goes Beyond the Taco

[Photographs: Eunice Choi, unless otherwise noted]

Cocina Economica Mexico

452 Amsterdam Avenue New York, NY 10010 (b/n 81st and 82nd; map); 212-501-7755; cocinaeconomicamexico.com
Service: Friendly, well meaning
Setting: Narrow and somewhat cramped; as much a cantina as the Upper West Side allows
Must-Haves: Chorizo and meatball fondue, Braised pork shoulder, Cemitas at lunch
Compare To: Casa Enrique, Gran Electrica, La Slowteria
Cost: Appetizers $2.50 to $9, entrées $13 to $16 at dinner
Recommendation: Good for the neighborhood, fun and friendly; a boon to the Upper West Side

Look at where Mexican food succeeds in New York and you'll find three general categories of food business. One is the hole in the wall gem: the taco truck that does great goat stew, the taqueria in the back of a grocery store. Another is the high-end, like Alex Stupak's modernist take on tacos at Empellón Taqueria and Cocina. There's lovable Tex-Mex too, like the lively El Toro Blanco or the weighty burritos at Dos Toros. But in the middle of these extremes—the high-end, the low-end, the gringo-end—there's so much room for growth in New York's affordable Mexican cooking world. And so little of it that is thoughtfully done.

Which is what makes Cocina Economica Mexico—on the Upper West Side of all places—something of an odd egg. It's a sit-down restaurant you can enjoy being in. Its menu goes way beyond tacos. It appreciates thoroughly Mexican ingredients and good technique, and it does so for about $20 a head. It isn't a destination restaurant for Mexican cooking, but it's the kind of fun place we may all—Sunset Park folks excepted, perhaps—wish we had in our own neighborhoods.

You could eat well at the bar, even if the ambitious-but-sweet cocktails underwhelm for the price and the michelada lacks bite. Sip some beer and nibble on subtle but buttery Chips and Guacamole ($6) or a sweet, steamy Avocado Corn Bread ($2.50) wrapped in a corn husk. Meatball and Chorizo Fondue ($8) is your must-order, a saucy take on queso fundido with tiny meatballs nestled next to ground sausage, and pools of chipotle chili sauce amid layers of stringy cheese. You take a bite with the sturdy, crisp chips and you realize what nachos always wished they were.

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I wish I could say I enjoyed the antojitos as much, and a beef cheek quesadilla ($8; other fillings available) stuffed to bursting with soft cheek meat and Oaxacan cheese seems tempting, but it's greasy and unwieldy, trapped between taco truck and taco redux and succeeding at neither. Better is a tart Ceviche Mixto ($9) of shrimp, octopus, and conch jumbled with jicama and fragrant papalo leaf. The seafood could be more tender, sure, but that oft-ignored papalo speaks loud enough to keep your attention.

The bulk of the menu is devoted to larger entrée-sized plates, only one of which is priced over $15 at dinner. And above standards like grilled steak and fish are some items that sound really exciting: short ribs stewed with hoja santa leaf; shrimp with fried plantains; pork with tomatillo and huauzontle. They're the dishes that most signal the home cooking ethos Cocina is all about: saucy braises full of vegetables alongside the listed proteins, a kind of "eat your veggies" mentality that feels nourishing more than forced or unwanted.

But they also highlight where Cocina falters. In the Hoja Santa Stewed Short Ribs ($12 at lunch, $15 at dinner), for instance, the beef is gorgeously tender. The carrots, collards, and string beans are cooked well but still bright. But the guajillo chili sauce that smothers it all? Dull, craving salt, heat, and acid, any trace of the eponymous herb wholly lost.

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Braised pork shoulder.

I had better luck with more nuanced Braised Pork Shoulder ($10/$13) and Braised Prawns ($12/$15), with spoon-tender pork and meaty shrimp, and more Mexican and American vegetables done right (the fried plaintains alongside the shrimp are especially nice). When folded into mini tacos with the steaming stack of tender tortillas, they're happy things indeed: Elevated just enough, but homey, not fancy.

If you choose to be critical you could call these dishes unambitious, compromises of the more exotic things they might have been. You could do that. Or you could take another swig of Modelo, make another taco, and relish how satisfying these simple things can be.

It's worth making that realization at lunch, too, when the entrées are a few bucks cheaper and the menu includes clean-tasting but very solid cemitas and slightly less exciting tortas ($8 to $9). And for something sweet, the Banana Empanada ($7) is a fitting dessert for a visit any time of day, flaky pastry housing molten bananas cooked down to caramel, topped with a banana gelato that tastes best as it melts down into the filling.

Cocina Economica is not the house of affordable, expertly cooked, and wholly traditional Mexican cooking that New York needs more of. But it's a fun place to eat, and a rewarding one too, a neighborhood spot to enjoy one imperfect bite at a time. On one visit, my dining companion interrupted our conversation to point out, matter of factly, beer in one hand and tortilla in the other, "You know, I'm having a great time here."

Me too.

More photos in the slideshow »

About the author: Max Falkowitz is the editor of Serious Eats: New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.

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