Chipotle is about to get a run for its money, at least in the Flatiron. Yesterday, Óxido (18 West 23rd Street; 212-256-1072), a new fast-casual modern Mexican joint, was unleashed to lines out the door, in the cold.
Similar to other concepts of this fashion, the menu consists of customizable bowls, burritos, and tacos with a focus on sourcing. All the chicken, pork, and beef used is from free-range, all-natural, humane farms.
Dubbed Modern Mexican, the fare has a strong Tex-Mex influence. Culinary director Jesse Perez, of Arcade Midtown Kitchen, was born and bred in the Lone Star State, and he’s one of the most highly acclaimed chefs in his native San Antonio. You can see the influence of his roots in items like grass-fed grilled garlic steak ($9.15), made from sirloin flap marinated with smoked chiles and toasted spices. While you can add any accoutrements you want, it was designed to pair with the smoked jalapeño salsa, a vinegary blend of chipotle peppers (smoked jalapeño), roasted garlic, and fire-roasted tomato. The chile de árbol, a slightly sweet, toasty, and acidic sauce, also pairs well with the Texas-style meat. “We didn’t want to be pigeonholed into Tex-Mex, which is often geared toward heavy cheese, enchiladas, refried beans,” he says. “We wanted to be more homey and bold. We wanted each item to have its own identity.”
Those salsas and sauces are a big part of the draw. The team started with about fifteen to twenty options and narrowed them down to seven. Each was created to match the main ingredients. For example, the $8.95 carnitas (which are marinated in garlic, lime, and spices, slow-cooked in lard, then shredded) are complemented by the suiza sauce, a creamy blend of tomatillo, onion, garlic, jalapeño, and sour cream. The raw salsa crudo, made with just tomatillo, garlic, and cilantro, though, is even better. Unlike the sauces for the beef, both of these are inspired by the fresh salsas found in the interior of Mexico, near Oaxaca or Pueblo.
The steak and the pork are on the milder side of the flavor spectrum. The new Mexican beef curry ($9.15) uses the same cut for Perez’s mellower take on traditional mole; he incorporates pasilla chile with tomatillos, garlic, and onions to create a stew for the meat. The chicken poblano ($8.65) is similar; boneless chicken thighs are hit with smoked paprika, cumin, ancho chile, and a hint of brown sugar, then grilled on the plancha (flat-top). The red-chile mushrooms ($8.50), the vegetarian option, are just as savory as the omnivorous selections. White button and cremini mushrooms are seasoned with onion, garlic, and spices, then thrown on the plancha as well.
And then you have the toppings. Both the basmati and brown rice are scented with toasted cumin. Same goes for the vegetable a la plancha, a mix of peppers and onion. The sweet-corn relish is Perez’s take on Mexican street corn (minus the mayo); it combines cotija cheese with chile powder, cilantro, and more. For beans, there’s vegetarian chipotle black beans and Texas-style charro pinto beans with peppers, tomatoes, and smoked bacon. Perez’s goal with the sides was to make sure each could stand up on its own. “I put a lot of effort into the beans; it wasn’t an afterthought or a filler,” he says. “They taste as good as everything else on the plate.”
The concept draws from Perez’s culinary background and personal history, which is exactly what managing partners Daihwan Choi (who is responsible for bringing Pinkberry to NYC) and entrepreneur Shmilly Gruenstein were seeking when they decided to go into business together. Choi and Gruenstein actively searched for chefs outside of New York to bring the concept to life. The first time they met with Perez, the team just clicked. “It was love at first sight,” says Gruenstein.
To bring it all together, the team recruited Austin-based architect and designer Michael
Hsu to oversee the design. Their goal was to incorporate the colors and flavors of the menu into the actual space. Greens, reds, and oranges are meant to represent the colors of chile de árbol, chipotle, pasillas, serrano, and jalapeño, while the lighting, tables, and art give the interior a homey feel.
About a year of work went into the project prior to the launch, and every detail was carefully considered, with an eye toward expansion. Choi opened fifteen Pinkberrys in New York over the course of five years, so he’s hoping to follow that model here. The team is already looking for future locations, but for now, they plan to settle in to their first storefront by slowly expanding the menu (expect to see monthly tacos and burritos such as lobster and shrimp) and adding delivery and corporate catering in the not-too-distant future. “I brought Pinkberry to New York in 2006,” says Choi. “When it was first introduced, it revolutionized the frozen-yogurt industry. I feel the same way about Óxido; I think it will revolutionize the Mexican fast-casual concept.”
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.