La Esquina is a three-headed monster of a restaurant clustered on the corner of Kenmare and Lafayette Street in Soho. On Kenmare you've got the Tacqueria, a take-out counter in a converted diner. Underneath that sits La Esquina's Brasserie, a subterranean speakeasy and one of the city's worst-kept secrets. Finally, around the corner sits La Esquina's Cafe, serving a menu similar but not identical to the takeout counter, with sit-down table service. I stopped by the cafe last week to chow down on some small plates.
We limited ourselves to the salads, starters, and sides section of the menu, starting with the Jicama and Mango Salad ($9), a pile of arugula topped with radishes sitting on top of thick slices of ripe mango and ribbons of jicama. I wanted more crunch from the jicama, but the flavor in this salad was right on—the sweet and spicy jalapeno dressing complemented the mango, while the arugula added even more punch. The serving size was also plentiful, one of the best values of the evening.
Maybe it was just the copious amounts of arugula on the first dish we were served, but the Quesadilla de Huitlacoche ($11) underwhelmed in both the flavor and value departments. Mushrooms, roasted corn, epazote and queso oaxaca filled the tortilla, which was already room temperature by the time it arrived at our table. The most exciting part of this dish was the smoky salsa that it came served with.
We also ordered a few sides to share. They seemed like a good value, and some of them were. The Pico de Gallo ($2.50) was mild but full of flavor, and the Black Beans ($3) ended up being the tastiest dish of the night: heavily flavored, not too salty, and tasting of pork, they were also helped by a few chunks of queso fresco floating on top.
Meanwhile, the Aguacate ($4) was half of a sliced avocado, a few halved cherry tomatoes, some shredded cabbage and a lime wedge. Look, everyone loves avocado, and I'm the first to admit I enjoy eating it straight up. But this dish was pushing it. Naturally, we wanted some tortilla chips for the beans, pico and glorified garnish plate, but La Esquina perplexingly does not offer chips. There may be a good reason for this, but we were left in the dark; our waitress offered no explanation with this devastating news.
We finished up with a plate of the Flautas de Rabo ($8), taquitos filled with tender, warmly spiced oxtail meat and topped with more of that smoky salsa and queso fresco. The other toppings seemed to mock our decision to order the avocado and pico as sides: another whole half an avocado, pico de gallo, and shredded cabbage. Still, for eight bucks, this dish was a good value, and filling to boot.
We ended up spending $37.50 for just two of us, taking us over the $15/person target. We had a pretty good meal at La Esquina, but in the end, I'm not sure what the advantage is to eating in the sit-down cafe versus the takeout tacqueria around the corner. For one thing, the service is snappier; more than one of our dishes were lukewarm by the time they reached our table. That's okay for pico de gallo or a sliced avocado, but not so much for oxtail flautas. Aside from those flautas, everything we ordered at this meal can be had at the take-out counter, and a few of the dishes are even cheaper there (the eleven dollar quesadilla we had here is eight bucks next door). If forced to make the decision again, I'd save my money at La Esquina and opt for the casual side—or sit down at a different restaurant.
La Esquina Cafe
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