Last month, when the Michelin Guide bestowed its coveted stars, four Queens restaurants were included among the honorees. One of them, Casa Enrique (5-48 49th Avenue, Queens; 347-448-6040), is a first-time recipient, as well as New York’s only Mexican restaurant to garner a star. Its Chiapas-born chef, Cosme Aguilar, originally cooked at Casa Enrique’s sister restaurant, Café Henri, before bringing his stellar albóndigas, enchiladas, and cochinito to Long Island City. We spoke to him about the transition from French to Mexican cuisine, the trouble with customers who don’t like spice, and the inspiration he takes from treasured family recipes.
How has life changed since you were given the Michelin star last month?
Since we got the star, everything has changed. We’ve gotten busier and have had to turn away reservations. When I walk in the street, people I don’t even know congratulate me. There’s been a lot of press, a lot of reporters. People I haven’t spoken to in a long time have been trying to get in touch with me.
You’re the only Mexican restaurant in New York with a star.
Yes, we’re the only Mexican restaurant and the only Latin restaurant right now.
A lot of people say that New York is not the best city for Mexican food. Why do you think Casa Enrique stands out?
Well, a lot of places try to please the gringos. I don’t like if somebody comes to my place and says, “I don’t want anything spicy.” I feel uncomfortable when people say things like that. This is a Mexican restaurant, and I am cooking for people who really appreciate Mexican food. Here, you’re going to eat the way we eat in Mexico. And besides, everyone can eat my food — the spice is just a kick. It’s not overpowering.
You used to cook French food, at Café Henri. How was it making the transition to cooking Mexican food?
I do love Mexican food, and for me it was hard to find good Mexican food here. We were originally supposed to open a French bistro and then my brother came up with the idea of opening a Mexican restaurant. I didn’t really know that much about Mexican — I am Mexican, but I didn’t know the cooking that well, and I decided to figure it out. I got together with my sister and my aunt, exchanging recipes and making them at home. If it didn’t work, I’d change something. I was just practicing for around six months, in my house, cooking Mexican food every day. I eventually became very knowledgeable about Mexican food.
You mentioned your family — are there any recipes on the menu that were inspired by them?
The cochinito (roasted pork ribs) was something my mother used to make. She used to have a restaurant before I was born, but then there were six of us siblings and my mom didn’t have time for it anymore. After that, she did catering for weddings, and customers would also come to my house and buy whatever she was making for that week. We used to live on a block where my aunts also had houses and we’d all hang out together. We had a brick oven, and we’d kill the animals and cook everything ourselves. So the cochinito reminds me of my mother’s.
How do you like working in Queens?
In the beginning, I wanted to do it in Manhattan. When we first moved to Queens to open Café Henri 12 years ago, there was nothing around. But it’s developed a lot since then. I’ve come to really like Long Island City. There’s more happening now, and it’s also easy to get to Manhattan and Brooklyn. You can also go for higher quality in food because you pay less rent here. In the city, you have to charge a lot for food because the rent is so high.
Are there any restaurants in Queens you particularly enjoy?
Café Henri is around the corner, and I also like to go to Alobar. I like Taverna Kyclades in Astoria.
What do you like about working in the restaurant industry?
When people recognize that you’re doing great and working hard — when you can make that connection with them.
What do you think is the hardest part?
The hardest part is when you have a bad night when nothing is working. When somebody is missing in the kitchen, and you can’t handle the number of customers. When you’re working in the kitchen, it’s like a team, and if someone’s not there, you feel you’re really missing something.
Is there something on your menu that you consider your signature dish?
I would say the mole, the lamb shank, and the pescado con elote. And, of course, the cochinito.