You may tell all who’ll listen that what you really want out of life is oceanfront property in Maui, but the truth is, most of us are still knocking our brains out trying to please our mothers. If that’s so, Aarón Sánchez has set himself up for a stockpot of heartache, because Sánchez’s mom happens to be Zarela Martinez, who is to Mexican cooking in America what Billie Jean King is to women’s tennis.
After hosting the posh nightly fiesta known as Cafe Marimba in the early eighties, Martinez wrote three cookbooks including the best-selling Food From My Heart, was a frequent TV guest of Julia Child and Martha Stewart, and opened her still-thriving East Side outpost, Zarela. Along the way, Martinez rescued Mexican food from the chimichanga bog by transforming its rice-and-beans-laden monotony into a celebration of the vibrant diversity to be found in the foods of Oaxaca, Jalisco, Veracruz, and other regions of her home country.
At age 11, Aarón began cooking by his mother’s side, and at 16, he told her he wanted to be a chef. “I know how good he can be,” she said at the time—the kind of parental expectation that therapists live off of. Early in his career, Sánchez won praise for his work in the kitchens of Patria and L-Ray, and as chef-owner of Paladar, his boisterous, appealing Nuevo Latina Ludlow Street hangout. But it wasn’t until he opened Centrico, his first full leap onto Mom’s turf, that Sánchez got his propers from Martinez. Sort of. After eating at her son’s new establishment, Mom gave him a Mona Lisa smile and declared, “I’ve seen growth.”
C’mon, Ma. Give it up. Though you can’t tell by looking at this cavernous restaurant, with its dull, flat colors, desperately in need of a piñata or something big and joyous to anchor the room and reflect the kitchen’s exuberance, Centrico energizes and elevates Mexican comfort and street food, the same winning way Spice Market jazzes up Southeast Asian pushcart fare. With a menu that gives classic regional dishes unexpected but smart twists, Sánchez repeatedly transforms the familiar without intimidating anyone.
The combo of mango and jícama, for example, is a snack in Mexico, often eaten out of a slightly stained paper bag, thanks to a healthy splash of lime and salt. Sánchez treats it as a tart salad alongside flash-seared sashimi-style tuna. Instead of the traditional fried-fish taco, he marinates and grills swordfish, then wraps it in a warm, soft corn tortilla with a dollop of cucumber-mango salsa. The chef fell in love with frogs’ legs as a young foodie in New York. They’re not popular in Mexico, but sautéed zucchini with pico de gallo and cheese is. So he put the two together. It’s not just original. It works. For a Mexican variation on the ubiquitous insalata caprese, Sánchez found sharp-flavored heirloom tomatoes grown from Mexican seedlings from a Union Square Greenmarket farmer, then added creamy homemade queso fresco and topped it with a dash of jalapeño in the vinaigrette. It’s a dish encountered countless times, but it’s never tasted exactly like this.
Sánchez’s ingenuity carries right on through the entrées. Birria, similar to boeuf bourguignonne broth except with a blast of ancho chilies, traditionally bathes an inexpensive cut of beef, but here it does wonders for short ribs. The monotony of pan-roasted salmon is relieved by a creamy succotash made with roasted poblanos and a shower of fresh huitlacoche. (That’s corn fungus to you. Don’t think. Eat. It’s delicious.) Grilled chicken is sold on the street in Mexico like hot dogs along Sixth Avenue. Sánchez first bones it, marinates it in chipotle, lime, and garlic, and then serves it on a bed of posole (hominy). The slow-roasted pig Yucatán-style is Centrico’s shining fatty star, shredded and laced with the scent of Seville oranges, garlic, and cumin. Ignore your diet and your doctor: Make a taco with the cracklings, add a squirt of lime, and devour.
Confession: As satisfying as chocolate cake with corn ice cream and pineapple upside-down cake with a tart guava sauce are, what I really craved was another jala-piña (tequila and fresh pineapple juice infused with jalapeño) or blood-orange margarita, two of the best house cocktails dreamed up in New York in ages. They rank right up there with Zarela’s legendary margaritas. And since she sees Centrico as merely a growth spurt for her son, I can’t wait until he’s all grown up.