America’s foremost Mexican chef resides, not in New York or L.A., but in Chicago. Author of celebrated cookbooks, host of several PBS series, and upset winner of Top Chef Masters Season One, Rick Bayless has finally become a familiar name. His restaurants are enormously successful in translating south-of-the-border gastronomy into both bistro and fine-dining idioms, making use of Mexico’s vast catalog of herbs and chilies in a way that Midwesterners can enjoy—which means light on the chile heat, but heavy on flavor, while sticking with plebeian ingredients.
Unfortunately, Bayless has no restaurant here. Sure, New York has long had its ambitious, pan-regional Mexican restaurants—Pompano and the Rosa Mexicano chain come to mind—but none succeeded in matching Bayless’s Windy City moves, instead erring by making their menus too effete and refined. Now, though, an Upper East Side newcomer has gotten it just right.
Lacking most of the creature comforts of the other contenders, Cascabel Taqueria must be classified as one of the city’s new crop of micro-eateries: places where real estate pressures encourage overcrowding of tables, low levels of service, and limited bills of fare that often belie spectacular food. Named after a round dried chile, the place takes its decorative motif from Mexican wrestling—everywhere you look, masks and posters celebrate the sport. Cascabel is so cramped, it even outsources its bathrooms: You have to wander outside into the tenement hallway to find them.
But after the first uncomfortable bite, you’ll fall in love. Two to an order, tacos ($7.50) are made with tiny tortillas overstuffed with meat from a list of eight choices, garnished—in true Mexican fashion—with raw onions, cilantro, and nothing else. A caddy on every communal table provides a choice of hot sauces, from subtle to not. The lengua (tongue), carnitas (pork tidbits), and homemade chorizo are foremost among the taco fillings, but skip the fish, which is made with yellowtail tuna breaded beyond recognition. All items are unceremoniously plated on battered aluminum baking trays.
While the tacos are happily similar to something you might get from a truck parked on Roosevelt Avenue, many of the dishes are more distinctively Bayless-like. Pierna de Puerco ($12) is pork leg braised in chilies and torn into fragments, in a heap so generous that the small stack of tortillas provided doesn’t make a dent. Riffing on the idea of Mexico’s corn kitchen, a tender, spice-rubbed roast chicken ($12.50) hides in a glade of cilantro, positioned unexpectedly on a bed of creamed corn that feels more like flan and quickly becomes inundated with poultry oozings.
A cudgel-size beef rib ($5) has been braised in a distinctly different chile combination, inviting you to pick up the whole thing and eat it aboriginally. Queso fundido—a gummy, rubbery mass indifferently seasoned in most Mexican restaurants—arrives sputtering and fluid in its cast-iron skillet, rife with mild roasted poblano chilies and heaped with crumbled chorizo. Even the salad, served ridiculously in that same aluminum tray, stimulates the digestive juices with its fluffy mound of glove-soft Bibb lettuces slicked with jalapeño vinaigrette, then mantled with crumbled fresh cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds. Salads don’t get any better than this.
Since Cascabel was conceived at least partly as a drinking spot (the beer list includes dozens of splendid craft-brewed beers), small dishes abound, with more effort put into them than is strictly necessary. Mexicans are extremely fond of green onions, and this is reflected in a delectable side, stewing them with garlic and a trace of ginger. Sliced radishes with sea salt make another fine south-of-the-border snack. So does the quesadilla, which is not the tortilla pile-up familiar as a bar snack, nor the Pueblan flop of masa wrapped around fillings like a giant soft taco. Rather, it’s the more obscure Central Mexican version Bayless describes in his cookbook Authentic Mexican: a smallish, deep-fried empanada filled with white cheese flavored with epazote, a Mexican herb that tastes like a combination of oregano and mint with a faint stench of burning rubber. It’s good!
If Cascabel has a flaw, it’s the reheated quality the food sometimes exhibits, evidence of a smallish kitchen and a propensity for making much of the food in advance, or perhaps indicative of the fact that the chef is reportedly working on a new project in the Hamptons. On my first visit, seriously impressed by the food, I’d asked the hurried bartender who the chef was. Her immediate reply, as if she were used to being asked the question: “Todd Mitgang. He’s really into Rick Bayless. You know who that is?”