For two decades, New Yorkers have been digging the regional cooking of Puebla and Guerrero. Sadly, we’re missing the food of nearly every other southern Mexican state, with the exception of a stray dish or two at upscale places like Rosa Mexicano. We’ve never had a real Oaxacan restaurant—slinging seven legendary moles—or one devoted to Yucatán, a cuisine famous for its sour-orange pork smoked in a pit.
Which is why I was delighted to hear about Casa Enrique (“Henry’s House”), an offshoot of the Village’s now-defunct Bar Henry that handily extends the city’s southern Mexican menu. The restaurant is located just off Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City, and the chef is Cosme Aguilar. Lucky for us, he was raised in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas, sandwiched between Oaxaca and Guatemala. It’s one of the country’s poorest regions, with a population descended from indigenous Indian tribes. While the state boasts a Pacific shoreline, mountainous rainforests constitute the largest part of the land mass, over which clouds perpetually linger.
Displayed on its brown awning, the restaurant’s logo is a shaggy dog wearing a sombrero. The sparsely decorated interior features a white L-shaped bar; opposite you’ll see a huge communal table, cobbled together with scrap wood and painted gleaming white, as if waiting for a band of modern apostles to arrive. Be careful not to spill any of the colorful moles on it, or you’ll be forced to sacrifice your napkin—and everyone else’s. A narrower dining room, slightly darker, extends into the interior, sporting two rows of comfy two-tops. It’s a great date spot.
The menu provides a window into the rarely seen cooking of Chiapas. Cochinita chiapaneco ($16) is a fine plate of pork ribs braised in a solution of dried guajillo chiles, which impart a tartness and slight smokiness to the deeply orange sauce. As with most main courses, this one comes with a heap of nicely lubricated yellow rice, a reservoir of black beans, and stack of warm tortillas deposited in the usual heat-preserving metal contraption, making the meal quite a bargain.
Then there’s the homely pozole ($13), made with a recipe from the chef’s aunt. While most versions of this pork-and-hominy potage at Pueblan taquerias are pale in color and available weekends only, here the soup is always orderable and tinted a fiery red, though not all that spicy. (One thing the menu demonstrates repeatedly is that dried chiles can be used to impart intense color and nuanced flavor without singeing your mucous membranes.) Throw in the chopped onions, Mexican oregano, and cilantro that arrive alongside, and the soup springs alive.
The most impressive main course originates across the border in Oaxaca: chamorro de borrego al huaxamole ($20), a massive lamb shank in a reddish brown sauce thickened with pullas, dried chiles full of earthy flavor. The thick mole also employs epazote (a wild herb that smells faintly of burning tires, adding depth to the mole) and huaje (seeds that impart a slipperiness and taste like garlic). Huaje comes in a long seed case that looks like the locust pods native to New York. That’s no accident—the two trees are cousins. In Mexico, the seeds are often used to add crunch to tacos.
The chocolate-tinged mole familiar from NYC’s taquerias is here called mole de Piaxtla, referring to a town in southern Puebla. You can get it with roast chicken or poured over chicken enchiladas. The version at Casa Enrique is only marginally better than other renditions around town. Instead, head for enchiladas dona blanca (“poor woman’s enchiladas,” $14), a trio of tortillas stuffed with cheese and roast peppers smothered in a smooth green tomatillo sauce. One day, as a couple of friends and I surveyed a tableful of dishes at Casa Enrique, this was the one we demolished first.
The menu offers plenty of antojitos, including tacos and sopes: Anything using the restaurant’s homemade skinless chorizo is fab. But if you need to appetize, better to select one of the seaboard snacks that reflect the Pacific cuisine of southern Mexico. There’s a great ceviche made with various market fish soaked in lime juice and onion, and another featuring shrimp in what’s almost a tomato soup. Both are garnished with sliced, perfectly ripe avocado, a fruit you’re never far away from at Casa Enrique.
With its small scale and unfamiliar recipes, the restaurant is a breeze of fresh air blowing across the city’s Mexican foodscape. Here’s hoping Oaxacan, Yucatán, Campeche, and Tabasco cafés soon appear, turning that breeze into a hurricane.