Despite the salsa horns on the stereo, during a recent meal at Esperanto, a pan-Latin restaurant in the East Village, we had a few lines of a Jay Farrar song stuck in our head: "Anyone caught speaking Esperanto / Is thought crazy or headed for jail." This led to an animated conversation about whether people actually use Esperanto in 2011, which led to Googling, which led to a run-through of commonly used Esperanto suffixes, which led to some looks from fellow diners. Still, the restaurant, with its blue walls and straw decorations, laid-back service and candlelight, encourages exuberant behavior. It's a happy place.
On Mondays, bottles of wine are half-off. On Tuesdays, every entree is $9.95. On Saturdays, a band plays samba, but there's often music after 8 pm on other nights of the week. And, from 5:30 to 7:30, Monday through Thursday, Esperanto offers three courses for $19.99, which is what we ordered on a recent evening whose chilly temps brandished the first sign of winter.
Meals begin with bread and Esperanto oil. Consider secretly making a reservation 30 minutes early just to have a bowl to yourself. Within the yellowy mix of olive and canola oils hover whole and crushed spices, including pepper, salt, cumin, and crushed red pepper.
The pinchos de carne were baby skewers of chicken, beef, and chorizo, served with a mild salsa roja. The chicken was moist yet charred, and the beef was more tender than you'd expect from a skewer. The porky chorizo, though, looked, and tasted, like a very good hot dog. Smartly, Esperanto served two of this particular meat-on-a-stick, as it was the best of the three.
Almost as light as popovers, the shrimp empanadas had very tiny prawns loosely knocking about inside the airy pastry. Those expecting crunch or heft should order something else, but we grew to like this dainty appetizer, served with the same salsa roja.
As with the beef skewer, the carne asada had been deftly cooked. It hadn't, however, been seasoned. So we poured on a little salt and pepper, and made do. For a restaurant so adapt with spices (cf., the oil), this dish seemed a curiously bland misstep.
The fish tacos arrived unassembled. We tore the strips of tortilla, flaked the tilapia, added some cotija and sour cream, dolloped a bit of salsa, snuck in a few cabbage-and-mango salad shreds, and finished with the guacamole. Doing it ourselves proved fun, while the food proved cool and refreshing and exactly right.
For dessert, an incredibly thick passion fruit mousse and a yummy coco flan. Other than tart, we didn't taste much of the mousse, and its density reminded us of tile grout. The flan, on the other hand, boasted big flakes of coconut and a sweet syrup on the side. We ate every bite of this custard, an attempt to fatten ourselves for the nasty weather to come.
We just came back from vacation, and as we plot the next trip, we intend to spend much time in restaurants like Esperanto, places whose atmospheres contrast so sharply with the immediate environment. Inside, Esperanto doesn't feel like New York, and definitely not like New York in December. With its cheeriness and slightly skewed takes on Latin American favorites, it's best for: an anti-winter date.