When I went to high school in Dallas, my classmates and I made an annual field trip to Padre Island in the Gulf of Mexico. On one glorious day in the middle of the week, we’d caravan across south Texas, crossing the Rio Grande River to the dusty Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo, where the teachers looked the other way as we swizzled our first margaritas.
For me, though, the day’s highlight was a stroll, seeking out the block of stalls and small cafés that vended cabrito—gutted and splayed baby goat, skin, head, and all. They were spitted over smoldering charcoal and sold in brown butcher paper by the whole, half, or quarter kid. To me, it was the best barbecue in the world.
Thus it was with puerile excitement that I approached the new cantina called Cabrito, on Carmine Street in the West Village. A pink goat dangling over the doorway strikes a ribald note. The storefront’s previous incarnation was BarFry, Josh DeChellis’s misbegotten attempt to elevate tempura to leading-man status. The place has been given a total makeover, with the antiseptic whiteness banished in favor of aquamarine walls and hand-painted tiles in ear-searing shades.
Where Cabrito differs from most slush-squirting margarita mills is in its good-natured reverence for the cuisine. It begins with the ensalada de verdolagas ($8), which emphasizes the lanky weed purslane over the usual boring clutch of baby lettuces. The colorful salad also includes red radishes, chopped eggs, and red onions in a chile-laced lime dressing. The guacamole is good, of course, but then so is the guacamole nearly everywhere. Instead, turn your attention to mackerel en escabeche ($9), a perfect plank of oily, strong-tasting fish smothered in pickled onions, a Spanish recipe brought to Mexico by the conquistadores. As you eat it, pat yourself on the back—mackerel is a sustainable fish.
The joint is nominally a glorified taqueria, and the tacos are big and bold, if a bit pricey at $6 apiece. Never mind—you’re in the door already, and the restaurant’s amazing homemade chorizo probably justifies the price. Tongue is another toothsome taco filling, braised in a pale-green tomatillo sauce that adds just the right amount of acidity. From Baja, California, comes one of New York’s best fish tacos, lightly breaded and greaselessly crisp, unfussily dressed with vegetable roughage and a squirt of crèma.
Taking a cue from the Red Hook soccer fields, Pueblan huaraches are turned out with a similar roster of fillings. These “sandals” ($14) are not quite as big, but they’re exceedingly lush, and provide an excellent showcase for the corn fungus huitlacoche, which tastes like the rubber-free fuck of a mushroom and a truffle—in a good way, of course. Also from Puebla come cemitas, round sandwiches on sweet seeded rolls extravagantly dressed with refried beans, avocado, and lots of smoky chipotle chilies. Inevitably, there are a handful of main courses, austerely served with a couple of homemade flour tortillas. My favorite is “red chili beef rib” ($18), a trembling tower of coarsely textured meat in a mole so thick and red it could have been made from bricks. Gloriously fatty pork excels in a green chile stew ($16) of the type celebrated in Hatch, New Mexico.
Presiding over this cavalcade of far-flung regional Mexican fare is chef David Schuttenberg, whose previous assignment was Fatty Crab. And therein lies a clue to the reasoning behind Cabrito: Like the Crab, it zealously translates a choice collection of ethnic recipes into the bistro idiom, so that about 80 percent of the dishes are aggressively “authentic,” with some intelligent tweakings here and there.
Which brings us to the baby goat ($23). Rather than being charcoal-grilled, it’s rubbed with sour orange and roasted in a banana leaf, replacing pork in Yucatán’s famed cochinita pibil. Unfortunately, the kid doesn’t take well to the recipe, leaving it sour, stringy, and somewhat skanky. Yes, Cabrito’s signature dish flopped—and not only because it didn’t transport me back to Nuevo Laredo and a tequila-soaked high-school outing.