It's always been part of the New York mystique that you can see absolutely anything there. So on an evening not so long ago, I was amused but not nonplussed when, as I sat at a counter overlooking the kitchen at Tacombi El Presidente, the chef nonchalantly slammed down a sheet pan containing two hogs' heads. Not hogshead as in a large barrel, but the real things. Not native to the Flatiron neighborhood where the restaurant is located, I'm sure, but they showed no signs of freezer burn. I grinned broadly and watched a young couple nearby gasp and then quickly go into oh-isn't-that-quaint mode.
I'd wandered into the restaurant, where I'd been before, for a pre-dinner drink and nosh. El Presidente is part of what's become a five-restaurant group, all serving casual Mexican food that has nothing to do with the ilk of Taco Bell. It's not a place for a quiet dinner, all tile and hard surfaces, and not a sombrero in sight. I've learned that after about 7 p.m., it's loud, generally the habitat of well-dressed Gen X's getting off work. A few exceptions - one table, off to one side, of seven older gentlemen in near-identical dark suits all looked extremely serious, almost grim.
The menu is cocktails, tacos, two quesadillas and some sides. Interestingly, the two most expensive non-alcoholic items on the menu are on the side dish list. One is a seafood cocktail. The other is their guacamole, and despite it costing $12, it might well be the don't-miss item on the menu. If you want a floor show with your meal, ask to sit at the counter facing the kitchen. You won't see as much of the other diners, but the action is fun. Soup is ladled, tacos assembled, al pastor sliced off the rotisserie, and from time to time, a line cook tosses the contents of an immense skillet, maybe 16 inches across, in the air, revealing a shower of yellow corn kernels whirling and being caught as cooking proceeds.
That guacamole is fresh and not ice-cold, chunky with pieces of avocado and tomato, nicely seasoned. The chips are uncommonly tasty. My first visit, I asked about why it was so good and a waiter waved his hand in the air and said, "Well, you know they use a lot of pork back there." Maybe they cook the chips in lard? I thought. No, they don't, the chef told me the night of the hogs' heads, shaking his head at the server. But they're fresh, and thick enough to scoop up the guac without crumbling. Four house-made salsas are in squeeze bottles on the table, but it's good enough to down unadorned. And the serving is, in a word, immense. If you're dining alone, it'll be your entree.
Tacos? El Presidente answers the call with ten varieties, including two vegetarian ones, sweet potato and black bean, as well as corn, poblano chiles and cheese. Barbacoa is shredded, deeply beefy in flavor, wonderfully moist. Sonoran shrimp charmed, a little spicy, some crunch from a few bits of cabbage, the shrimp not overcooked and just the right size for a taco, altogether quite notable.
And then there was the pork. The hogs' heads had led to a conversation with chef Jason Debriere,
who told me that he goes through 900 pounds of heritage pork a week. His carnitas were crispy, with a little hit of cumin, but like all the other tacos, definitely not dry. And the taco al pastor, from the rotisserie, the axis being topped with a giant fresh pineapple (just like the one I talked about a few weeks ago at El Morelia on St. Charles Rock Road) , was genius. It included a half-circle of grilled fresh pineapple in it, a graceful touch considering how much al pastor is out there without the traditional pineapple.
That corn flying around the saute pan arrives in the form of esquites, the corn sauteed with cotija cheese and topped with a chipotle mayonnaise, a seriously substantial dish worthy of respect. I'm not quite sure where it would fit in with a menu like this, but I'd eat it happily at any point in the meal.
Thinking about St. Louis restaurant-goers, I asked Debriere, who said he'd made tacos of all kinds of ingredients, including rabbit and goat, if there was anything his customers wouldn't eat. Debriere, who isn't a New York native, said, "People here will eat anything, especially if you charge a little more for it." Ah, psychology and the human palate.
Serious cocktails with lots of references to the Latin part of the Americas - a pina colada, not the kind made in a blender with ice, but a serious shaken drink on the rocks, a daquiri, which had a surprising note of anise in it, and a paloma, tequila with fresh grapefruit and a little club soda, very dry and very refreshing.
Good food and interesting people- and kitchen-watching. If you need to talk, you can always go for a walk afterwards.
30 W. 24th St., New York City
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Tacos and Entrees: $4-$14