Well, in a sense. Chavella’s a tiny little restaurant opened up a little over a year ago half a block from where I was living in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn (now I live all of about a block away). I would pass by and take a look at the menu which offers a selection of somewhat standard Mexican fare including tacos, tortas, quesadillas and bigger plates of enchiladas, tamales and chicken mole. Of course I was psyched to see this tiny little bastion of la cocina Mexicana opening up in this neighborhood where as far as I know there aren’t a whole lot of Mexicanos and I was rooting for it to succeed. And if the numbers of people crowded into the tiny dining room is any indication, Chavella’s is doing just fine.
But for some reason, I remained a little skeptical of the place, perhaps owing to my Mexican food snobbery (I’m from California and consider tacos a comfort food) and perusing the menu, I found the prices reasonable, but a little high for rather simple dishes. So for over a year, I resisted eating there – until the other night. As it were, it was the evening of Cinco de Mayo and since me and Shef were doing our laundry a block away, we figured why not give Chavella’s a try? The place was pretty packed for a Monday night but we got a little a table close to the entrance and close to the kitchen – really, this place is tiny and seats probably maybe 20 people tops at full capacity. Being so small has both positives and negatives. If you’re so inclined its really easy to check out what other people are eating because you’re basically sitting at their table anyway. The bad thing is you constantly get jossled by the food server as she squeezes between the seats.
But let’s talk about the food. The review from Time Out New York posted on the front door and other online reviews have on the whole been pretty positive so I checked my skepticism at the door. Alright to be fair, we didn’t order a whole bunch off the menu staying pretty much on the course of tacos and tortas. So I can’t comment on the “platos fuertes” or main course like the mole, enchiladas or tamales. But judging from the chicken mole and enchiladas in salsa verde that our neighbors at the next table were having they looked pretty good, as did the corn with the mayonnaise and chile and queso freso. From appearances everything looked pretty authentic. Shef got three tacos: one fish, one chipotle chicken and the other bistec (beef) – on the recommendation of the waitress who said she didn’t eat pork(?!) and thus could not recommend the carne enchilada, Chavella’s only pork option for tacos. Yup, no carnitas and even worse, no al pastor! As you can probably surmise, this is where the review takes a turn towards the less than positive. What the fuck? How can any self respecting establishment deign to serve tacos and not have al pastor as an option. I mean seriously. So, as a result too I ended up ordering one taco de bistec and torta de chorizo con papas I rarely pass up the opportunity to order chorizo. But first, let’s talk about the tacos.
Alright, so as you can see, these tacos were a pretty good size and at $3 each they were the cheapest things on the menu and only a buck or so more expensive than what you’d get at a taco truck or a real taqueria. How were they? Pretty good. Not great, but serviceable. The meat was nicely seasoned and flavorful and there was an ample amount in each taco. But here’s what was missing: the pickled jalapeños, radishes and carrots, lime and basic salsa picante to spice up the taco. As you can see from the photos for the beef tacos, you get a few sprigs of cilantro and an avocado slice on the chicken. No picture of the fish taco though. It came sauteed in a pico de gallo type sauce and was good (probably halibut or something equally meaty). All of the rudimentary condiments one should be able to add to a taco in order to gussy it up and personalize were nowhere in evidence. I even had to ask for extra lime to squeeze on my tacos. There were no bottles of Tapatio, Cholula or El Yucateco with which to spice up my tacos. Fortunately I was able to spy a bottle of Valentina sauce in the kitchen mere feet away and when I requested it by name, the waitress (whom I guess I should point out was not Mexicana) was at first puzzled when I called it out by name but graciously brought me some which I subsequently poured all over my torta. Which brings us to the torta:
Now, I love love me some torta – almost as much as I love tacos and burritos and I had high hopes for this one as I was excited to see that they even had Tortas on the menu. And like I said, I was excited to eat chorizo con papas. But in retrospect, maybe I ordered incorrectly. Maybe I should have ordered a more meaty filling like the bistec or the milanesa (with breaded fried chicken and not a beef or pork cutlet – yeah I know, how authentic is this place?). But I was expecting meaty chunks of chorizo interspersed with small but firm pieces of potato that had maintained their structural integrity. Instead what I got was basically mashed potatoes with traces of meat product chorizo that when combined with the black bean spread became a mealy concoction that nearly masked any sort of bite afforded by the chorizo. Shef took a bite and said with its mushy consistency it tasted like Indian food – Pau Bhaji to be exact. I mean that’s not a bad thing, but do I want my Mexican sausage to taste like Indian vegetarian food? Answer: no. As I mentioned before I had to pour liberal amounts of valentina sauce just to feel like there was any kick the sandwich. This sandwich disappointed me, disappointed me badly.
Alright to be completely fair, I can’t judge Chavella’s based solely on the items that we ordered. We didn’t order appetizers or entrees and from what we saw other people eating they looked pretty good and people looked pretty satisfied to be chowing down. But let’s face it, not to be terribly elitist but these people probably don’t have a finely tuned palate honed by years of taco trucks, taquerias and a life time lived in California. All I can say is the tacos and torta were mediocre. They’ll do the job in a pinch, but lacked the punch that they should have had. And this brings me to the closing thought or two of this review. From what I could tell all the cooks were Mexican (not so uncommon in any kitchen – mind you) and in my experience some of the best cooks in the world. But why is it they they’re not doing justice to their food? Is it because they have to blandify it (don’t know if that’s a word) to suit the gringo tastes? Obviously Chavella’s is worlds better than those “Mexican” joints run by Chinese folks and as far as real Mexican food in Prospect heights goes, it’s probably the best around but I think the competition is pretty slim. I just wanted this place to be so much better. Maybe the next time, it will. Until then I’m going to Queens.