ABC Cocina: Great Seasonal Latin, If You Can Stand the Wait
38 East 19th St New York, NY 10003 (b/n 5th and Park; map); 212-677-2233; abccocinanyc.com
Setting: What's that? I can't hear you!
Service: Looks good, tries hard, falls short
Compare To: Spice Market, Dos Caminos, ABC Kitchen
Must-Haves: Pea guacamole, short rib tacos, patatas bravas, sugar snap pea salad
Cost: Expensive. $7 to $24 for small shared plates.
Recommendation: Recommended with reservations. An excellent and varied menu is marred by a mob scene and spotty service.
It's been a little over two years since the lowly taco got its cheffy makeover at the hands of Alex Stupak. At the time, people balked at the prices at his Empellón Cocina. $17 for tacos? Are you nuts?
Since then, the general reaction has turned from one of why?! to oh, I guess that's why, and the high-end taco was thus officially established as a legitimate food form in New York before proceeding to slow to a near stand-still in its plans to take over the city. For a full year and a half, all we had was Alex doing his thing at his two Empellóns, but recently others have jumped into the game: First April Bloomfield with her Salvation Taco in Murray Hill, quickly followed by Xixa in Brooklyn, and just last month, Jean-Georges Vongerichten with his ABC Cocina in the ABC carpet building on 19th Street.
Like its neighboring restaurant ABC Kitchen—also a Jean-Georges/Chef Dan Kluger tag-team—the menu is eclectic but seasonally based, simple to read, but interesting in its details. Though I've spotted Jean-Georges and Dan Kluger in the kitchen on a few occasions, the ship is helmed day-to-day by chef de cuisine Ian Coogan. Every single dish sounds like something you want to eat (and for the most part, is).
Patatas Bravas ($8)—perfect nugget-shaped french fries that stay crisp even after being doused in their spicy sauce—and their Spanish partners in crime Sizzling Garlic Shrimp ($13) can only be faulted for the small portion sizes (very few dishes here are meant for much more than simple grazing). Ham and Cheese Fritters ($10)? They come crisp on the outside, and gooey as promised in the middle. Raw Shaved Fluke ($11) may have a touch too much mint to really work as a Latin dish, but the crunchy rice crispies sprinkled on top are welcome regardless of their Jean-Georges-inspired southeast Asian origin.
While ABC Kitchen is the kind of place you might take your parents to show them what an excitingly casual modern New York restaurant is all about, Cocina is where you'd take them to ogle the models and scenesters who seem to have accidentally lost their way to the meat packing district. The feel is much more Spice Market than Mark.
That's not to say it's not exciting. The ceilings are strung with chandeliers vaguely reminiscent of jellyfish, or perhaps swarms of shrimp. Clusters of barnacles that look like they were applied with the world's most expensive bedazzler cling to the corners of the walls. It's an energetic place to be in, and the crowds have never been short of frenetic.
The restaurant is relatively new, and the service is still inconsistent. On one night a hostess promised a 20 minute wait time that stretched into nearly an hour, which was passed in a pleasant chat with the bartender over a Rye Tai ($16), their particularly dry version of the tiki bar classic. On another night, our waiter cleared a half-eaten but wonderfully sweet and flavorful plate of Lobster Rice ($19) from our table, took ten paces towards the kitchen, then plucked out a half eaten lobster claw with his fingers and ate it in full view of a half dozen tables. I should have warned him we left the claws because they were a little overcooked.
It's fortunately easy to forget many of these trespasses once the food finally starts arriving. You'll immediately get distracted by the Pea Guacamole ($11) as you try and figure out if the guacamole itself has actual mashed peas in it, or if that sweet flavor is coming solely from the whole peas sprinkled on top that pop in your mouth like spring-filled caviar. Or you may find yourself wondering if those same spring peas would make a robust enough filling for a crisp, deep-fried empanada (the answer is yes, though you'll want to go a little light on the fiery chili yogurt sauce it comes with if you don't want to cover it up).
Those empanadas are the most impressive item on a largely well-executed selection of masa and tortilla-based snacks. Also topping that list are Glazed Short Rib Tacos ($14)—incredibly tender and moist chunks of glazed short rib tucked into fresh-cooked corn tortillas. They're precious enough that you'll want to pick at them with a fork, daintily plucking the fried onion rings that crown their tops, but they're better eaten as intended—messy, with your hands, letting the oniony habanero relish drip onto your plate where you can pick it back up with your last scrap of tortilla.
On occasion those tortillas have been slightly dry—on one visit they were saved by the juiciness of their Pulled Pork ($12) filling, but you'll get no such help with the Crispy Fish ($13), which comes impeccably fried, but needs a bit more creamy aioli in there to help wash it down for times when the tortillas are lacking. Akaushi Beef Slider Tacos are—as fancy beef burgers almost always are—a waste of good meat, and the only real misstep on an otherwise impeccably designed menu.
As at ABC Kitchen, Kluger is at his best when he's doing simple dishes based on seasonal vegetables. Five fat stalks of perfectly tender-crisp Grilled Asparagus ($10) dressed with slivers of pickled onion, and chunks of Marcona almond with a wedge of lime, for instance. Or a nest of English peas and Sugar Snap Peas ($10) dressed in a bright citrus vinaigrette with a swirl of housemade sour cream.
Making a full meal out of these sorts of snacks comes more easily than you'd think—It's the type of menu where you can plan to order only a few items but tack on a half dozen more as the waiter starts walking away because you just can't stand to leave without trying the Patagonian Poached Prawns ($18) with their paprika aioli (wise move). But if you want to fill up in a more efficient manner, your best bet is the rice section, the best of which is the Arroz con Pollo ($19).
It's chicken and rice that lands somewhere in between risotto and a paella in its creaminess, and more intensely chicken-y than you'd expect with nothing but a light sprinkle of lemon zest and a few shards of crisped chicken skin to break its comfortingly uniform texture. It's cooked to order and takes about half an hour to get to the table, so make sure you have other snacks to keep you occupied in the mean time.
Desserts are fun, with an Impossible Flan ($8)—that's a flan cooked in a bath of salted caramel—and a trio of seasonally flavored popsicles leading the charge. Actually, fun is what largely sums up the experience. The food is not too serious, but seriously tasty, and the atmosphere is charged. You'll just have to learn to take the waits and slips in service in stride.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.