It’s not unusual to find highly trained cooks eating food unfit for Dickensian orphans. One of the worst staff meals I ever endured was at a Michelin-starred French restaurant in London, where the sadistic line cook in charge of making the team’s dinner plopped down hotel pans full of cold fried eggs and unbuttered toast. Cooks don’t eat as glamorously as you might imagine.
But every restaurant has its heroes: a superstar prep cook, an eager-to-please new guy, or a generous sous chef who knows how to handle the task of cooking for co-workers on top of her regular duties and approaches the walk-in’s leftovers with gusto. On these days, even cooks deep in the shit will find a minute to leave their stations—it’s worth it for the trays of jerk chicken, the hot rice and beans doused with fresh green salsa, or the huge pot of lamb curry filled out with potatoes and onion. Family meals offer a glimpse at the imperfect, nostalgic, steadying food cooks make for their fellow cooks when they have neither luxury ingredients nor time to waste—and the best ones taste of home.
Pedro Hernandez Perez started working in restaurants when he arrived in New York from Puebla, Mexico, at 17. Over seven years at Land Thai in Manhattan, he made his way up to sous chef, all the while cobbling together Mexican-inspired dishes to feed the crew of cooks and servers several days a week. “Pedro used to make us the best mole,” a server told me over the phone. Last December, Land Thai’s chef/owner, David Bank, opened his first Mexican restaurant and gave his young sous chef a promotion. It’s a testament to the city’s immigrant-run restaurant culture that Hernandez Perez hasn’t needed to learn more than a few words of English to run a kitchen on the Upper West Side.
His menu at Cocina Economica Mexico is like that family meal on a good day—hearty, satisfying, and rough around the edges. The antojitos shine, like the hot quesadillas sealed with Oaxacan cheese, dripping neon chorizo-longaniza oil, and the soft, doubled-up tortillas stuffed with braised beef cheeks and pulled pork shoulder ($4). Nopales, the slippery cactus leaves, are a crunchy delight in tacos ($4), and better still in a rowdy little salad ($7) of jicama, radish, and string beans, dressed in a splash of serrano-spiked lime juice. Tiny pork meatballs ($8) in a pan of wilted greens and Oaxacan cheese must be scooped up quickly with hot tortillas, before they start to set.
One of the more common complaints from diners at Land Thai was that the food there was softened to please, edging toward sweetness, lacking the vigor and verve of the traditional Thai kitchen. Cocina’s tendency is to hold back as well, turning down salt, acid, and heat (dishes marked with skulls, warning you of racy chile-laced material, do not deliver on your death wish). Still, there are exciting appearances from lesser-known ingredients, like the sharp, cilantro-esque herb pipicha, and blooming wands of huauzontle, that big, weedy goosefoot often compared to broccoli. These are fried with eggs or battered like fritters—the stems are tough as hell, but work at the buds with your teeth.
Sometimes, though, the food at Cocina can be a little too reminiscent of home cooking. This is especially true when it comes to the platillos ($13–16), larger plates of meat and vegetables that canbe comforting, but also veer dangerously toward the 30-minutes-or-less efforts of an exhausted parent, eager to get something—anything—on the table. If the kitchen refined its technique—cooked meat and fish a bit more carefully, seasoned each component more generously—then the restaurant might graduate from a friendly neighborhood joint to more of a destination.
Then again, why bother? On any given night, the 26-seat spot is packed with cheerful locals sipping micheladas made with Valentina hot sauce, dipping puffy blue-corn chips into fresh guacamole ($6). Cocina replaced Bank’s former restaurant in the same space, Recipe, so of course it’s as long and narrow as an airplane—a light tells you from a distance if the bathroom is occupied—and tables are packed tightly enough for diners to strike up conversations with strangers, as they often do. Others sit at the bar, alone, straight from the office, eating stewed short ribs while glued to their BlackBerrys, swigging beer between bites of black beans, catching up on e-mails. It’s like they’re already home.