The tostadas de jaiba at the six month old Casa Enrique in Long Island City, look unassuming enough. There are three, small, round corn chips topped with a mound of onion, cubes of avocado, and crab. As you crunch into the tostada the sweet shreds of oceanic meat meld into buttery avocado, offset by a crush of onion and a shock of lime, jump-starting the meal to an unexpected level.
Casa Enrique is a restaurant defining a new tier of Mexican food in New York City, a mid-level status place like Gran Electrica in DUMBO or Casa Mezcal on the Lower East Side, which flaunt larger ambitions than outer borough taquerias catering to the local Mexican diaspora, but are not as upscale or as pricey as Empellon or Toloache. With functioning air conditioning and some notion of decor, these bilingual spots, serve credible Mexican food elevated by urbane technique.
Brothers Cosme and Luis Aguilar recently closed their Bar Henry in Manhattan, situating their domain on the burgeoning restaurant row of LIC, with Cafe Henri in one corner, and since March, Casa Enrique. The menu is inspired by the Aguilar's hometown of Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico bordered by Guatemala and Belize, which, here, looks pretty much like every other Mexican restaurant in the city.
There's a frisky ceviche de pescado ($12) and a cocktail de camarones ($12) with barely cooked shrimp that you will like, if you like ketchup. An ascetic mash of avocado with a pinch of cilantro is a purist's guacamole ($8) in a bowl often stretched by cheap chunks of onion and tomato. Tacos ($8), served with coins of pickled carrots and lime wedges, show restraint with just five offerings, and delicious ones at that. A housemade chorizo, fine and crumbly, with a spark of vinegar and warm spice, will drip an electric orange oil down your fingers. The grilled mesquite chicken tacos are also worthy, but carry a strange whiff of liquid smoke.
With such enjoyable beginnings, it would be easy to nibble around the menu, working your way through a six pack you bought from the corner bodega (the restaurant is BYOB). The entrées, however, are equal contenders: pozole de mi tia ($13), a trough of pork and hominy soup, soothes. A chamorro de borrego al huaxamole ($20), a lamb shank fit for the Flintstones, is coated with a ruddy sauce flavored with pulla chiles, epazote, and is thickened by the ground huajes seeds.
The enchiladas dona blanca ($14), three corn tortillas rolled around a filling of roasted poblano chilies cut into strips and cooked with cream, is blanketed by a tomatillo sauce as smooth as gossamer. Underneath the rolls, there's a hidden swipe of puréed black beans and an errant dice of onion and sweet corn kernels, which pop like caviar, under the tooth. Warm, sultry, with as much ability to disarm as a mom-cooked meal of mac n' cheese, it's a delightfully subduing dish, and doesn't come out of a blue and orange box.
5-48 49th Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101 (map) 347-448-6040