El Rey (2521 Astoria Boulevard, Queens, 718-545-2292) is a Mexican restaurant in Astoria, Queens. There are elevated red banquettes you have to step up into; these squishy booths make drinking buckets of miniature Coronas easier, even when it’s cold outside. The twinkling Christmas lights bounce off mirrors emblazoned with Victoria logos, and there is a framed painting of a farm girl tending to a newborn calf who looks a little too pleased by the animal’s wet tongue swiping her face.
The black menu is embossed with a golden crown and looks like something you might be handed at a gentleman’s club, but there is something on the list for everyone: tacos, tortas, antojitos, platters of stewed chicharrón, whole porgies deep-fried until their toothy grins jut out from their lips, and large, swarthy burritos. The carousel of salsas hits the table with chips, to dip into a green tomatillo salsa of medium body and a bright salsa rojo, toy-fire-engine red, that swarms with ground chiles de árbol, seeds and all. The waitress might also bring a plastic cup of Valentina, a pico de gallo chock full of chopped tomatoes, onions, and cilantro, and a bowl of crema, to cool off.
The burritos come stuffed with carne enchilada, draped in the colors of the Mexican flag and flanked by rice and beans. A bowl of chicken soup, more vegetable than animal flesh, has celery, carrots, potato, zucchini, and strands of green epazote lending their herbaceous perfume. It’s pure penicillin for these frigid days, made even better with a spoonful of the salsa roja stirred in, the broth blushing as red as your cheeks.
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.