The quilt of melting chihuahua cheese that glues sweet al pastor pork to a gringa Madison comes on a fresh made tortilla — not the corn kind that has finally been receiving its fair share of attention in NYC, but flour. Cafe el Presidente (30 West 24th Street, 212-242-3491), the new project from the Tacombi group, doesn’t play favorites; it makes both varieties in house on two separate machines. The flour tortillas are almost as flaky as croissants, and the corn disks fill the space with the smell of toasted maiz. The hallways of Eataly, which is just around the corner, never smelled this good.
“It’s hard to do what you want to do without a home base to do the tortillas, the juices, more production,” says owner Dario Wolos. So he conceived Cafe el Presidente as a multifaceted hub: a place to source coffee beans from Chiapas and Veracruz (morning cafe service starts on June 2), a taqueria, a tortilleria, and Mariscos Madison, an evolving seafood-centric project for the basement.
The space is stark and boxy, sly design simply with a white backdrop, checkered floors, and folding metal chairs. For now, the taqueria, Tacos Madison, is the focal point of the room, and Jason DeBriere, the former chef of Peels, takes a light approach to cantina cuisine. Heirloom ayocote beans and delicate green rice have an airiness not usually associated with a plate of starch on starch. As subtle — and good — are the seared pieces of fish coated with mojo de ajo with pico de gallo. Uncluttered by cheese or crema, a taco of shrimp barely cooked past translucence has a sweetness that plays off the corn tortilla but enough prickling chile heat of habanero to keep you at attention. I could have eaten five of the little quesadillas, made with blue corn, cheese, and roasted poblano chiles.
Other dishes are wanting. Guacamole needs salt; so does a taco of braised Swiss chard. The team has been using the early weeks to tweak recipes, drop the cocktail menu, perfect the carnitas, and test out breakfast pastries, but if the crew can just load on a little ballast to steady the ship, Cafe de Presidente will be cruising.
Maybe most impressive is the service. The unobtrusive staff, cloaked in long white aprons, bring good cheer, even if you deny your waiter’s offer to bring you another round of Carta Blancas. The servers’ poise and attentiveness might seem like it draws from more upscale dining rooms across the park, but it’s Mexican tradition much older than Danny Meyer hospitality.
Scarlett Lindeman is a Brooklyn-based writer, covering the city’s best taquerias, fondas, and cantinas. She writes the ¡Oye! Comida column for Fork in the Road.