A decade ago, New York had a thing for Southwestern food. It was Southwestern cooking, with its adept use of fresh and dried chiles, long-braised meats, and supple homemade tortillas, that catapulted Bobby Flay to fame, first at Miracle Grill, then at Mesa Grillthough the august chef has long since escaped into TV land. The 1997 Zagat listed a whopping 26 Southwestern places, but by 2002, the number had dwindled to 10. In spite of evidence that the trend was fizzling, Los Dos Molinos hopped into town like the fabled jackalope four years ago, offering a hash house take on Southwestern cuisine more appealing and authentic than any of its predecessors.
Festooned with chile lights, kachina dolls, and other fakey folkloric decor, Los Dos Molinos ("The Two Chile Grinders") might be mistaken for a margarita mill. But it's the offspring of a celebrated Arizona chain, featuring a cuisine that originated in the Sonoran desert four centuries ago as Spanish soldiers marched north into what is now Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. Twin pillars of the cuisine are a pair of chile sauces, one green, one red. The first deploys the green chiles of Hatch, New Mexico, so famous for their pungency that, come harvest time, you can sniff 'em miles away. Made from dried red chiles, the second is even more fiery.
In a snacking mood? Spoon the green sauce onto the so-called cheese crisp ($11), a snowy melting of white cheese onto a giant flour tortilla. In a meatier mood? Pick the machaca pizza, created along the same lines but heaped with a Sonoran staple of air-dried beef pounded and stewed to emphasize its fibrous character. But you'll find these snacks timid compared to many of the entrées. Adovada ribs ($21.95) are native to northern New Mexico, according to the knowledgeable bartender, who turned out to be a daughter of the owners. Pork ribs have been stewed with chiles till the meat falls off the bone, giving it a texture like, well, machaca.
Los Dos Molinos,
119 East 18th Street,
Other high points of the menu include "Victoria's red or green chile plate" ($17.95), a humble assemblage of rice, beans, a homemade flour tortilla, and your choice of the two sauces mentioned above, which form an undifferentiated mass on the large plate, indistinguishable from a half dozen other entrées utilizing nearly the same roster of ingredients. That's OK, because all of the assemblages are delicious, and pack the same chile wallop. This is peasant cuisine par excellence, and the café doesn't give a hoot for austere modern notions about plating. The chile relleno dinner ($16.50), too, is very good, but not all that different from what you might find in one of the Pueblan grocery store cafés that have changed our ideas about Mexican food over the last few years.
There are many candidates for most satisfying gut bomb on the menu; my vote goes to the deep-fried burro ($8.25 and up). Burro is burrito's shrunken older brother, offered with a limited choice of fillings. Other bargains on the menu include enchiladas, tostadas, and taco saladsthough not quite as distinctive, they are far cheaper, and allow Molinos to function as a cheap neighborhood Mexican restaurant. Avoid the shrimp dishes, however. If you wonder why, just consider how many shrimp the Spanish soldiers stumbled on as they marched north into the desert.
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