Mexican, Unmasked

Cascabel Taqueria.Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

As any West Coast taco lunatic will tell you, New York’s Mexican food is not the city’s strongest culinary selling point. Still, it’s never been that hard to find a fast and tasty fix on any of the tortilla-griddling corridors, from Spanish Harlem to Sunset Park. And lately, in fact, makeshift taquerias have been springing up everywhere: on carts and trucks of varying degrees of hipness and authenticity, ensconced in the back of nondescript bodegas, tucked inside tortilla factories in the industrial outer-borough wilds, even down in Dumbo at the Brooklyn Flea, where one self-proclaimed Choncho (“fat guy”) has been stuffing fried cod into tortillas made fresh daily in an artisanal Corona tortilleria (see here).

The taco boomlet might not yet threaten the burger craze, the fried-chicken frenzy, or the pizza explosion, but it is big enough to birth an entertaining subgenre: the Mexican-wrestling-themed taqueria. Lucha libre, as the “sport” is called, is something like the WWE, only with masks, a lot more finesse, and a kitschy motion-picture tradition that extends way beyond the Jack Black vehicle, Nacho Libre. It’s a national pastime and a cottage industry, and, as of this fall, it’s the decorative inspiration behind two new taco joints.

In this corner, we have Cascabel, a casual counter-service restaurant with a luchador mural along one wall, framed photos of various combatants along the other, and rows of luchador figurines sandwiched between shelves of poblano peppers and Valentina hot sauce. The counter is manned by a preternaturally friendly staff, who take orders and ferry food to tables on rectangular tin plates that evoke the army or a camping trip. There are unexpected niceties, like frosted glasses for microbrew beer, $6 glasses of wine, vibrant housemade salsas in chilled caddies, and copies of the daily papers incongruously stacked alongside old issues of Box y Lucha magazine on a room-dividing condiment rack.

The menu is extensive and, in keeping with the theme, freestyle. By that, we mean more inventive than traditional, a fact you can attribute to the background of chef-partner Todd Mitgang, who formerly ran the equally unbridled Crave Ceviche Bar and cooked at Kittichai. His tacos are not the sort you’d find on a Roosevelt Avenue street-cart crawl: They might utilize the familiar double soft-corn tortilla construction, and the kitchen might fetishize chile peppers of all shapes and sizes, but the flavor profiles ultimately approach fusionville. Of the eight taco varieties, which come two to an order garnished with lime and roasted serranos, the housemade chorizo made with four types of chiles is the star—crumbly and delectably smoky. Pollo chipotle is lighter on spice than the name implies, the tender white meat seemingly pulled from the spice-rubbed rotisserie birds Mitgang serves as an entrée and intermingled with fried-chicken skin for crunch. The excellent lengua, or veal-tongue taco, is drizzled with garlic oil, and the carne asada strews achiote-marinated hanger steak (also available as a tasty but slightly tough entrée) with a blizzard of fried-onion flakes. Fish-taco aficionados will look askance at this version; neither crisp nor particularly moist, morsels of cornmeal-crusted yellowfin tuna are heaped with slivered olives and hearts of palm. It’s a nice try, if not an entirely triumphant effort.

Mitgang makes the most of his Berkshire pork, though, serving the adobo-marinated butt as an entrée or stuffed into tasty carnitas tacos, and sandwiching the fat-streaked belly between two corn-masa cakes in what seems like a take on Momofuku’s pork buns, which he calls gorditas con puerco. It was a polarizing snack at our table: One half of the U.G. team pronounced the chipotle-honey glaze a sugary flop, and the thick cucumber slice misplaced, but the other embraced its sticky-sweet, pork-fatty charm. Of the other menu items, we found the spiced-to-order guacamole well-seasoned and fresh, the tortilla soup hearty and soothing, and the quinoa and frijoles—made with local black beans and sprinkled with cotija cheese—nourishing, in a Moosewood Cookbook kind of way. Of course, you can nullify any salubrious effect by finishing with a trio of airy churros (more accurately, churro McNuggets), cinnamon-sugared morsels best enjoyed by dipping into a frothy cup of Mexican hot chocolate.

While Cascabel aims to refine the taco-eating experience, La Lucha, which opened only a week ago in the East Village, strives for a gritty Mexico City–street-food authenticity along with a lucha-libre-inspired décor taken to an extreme. There are floor-to-ceiling lucha-libre posters, luchador toys and figurines galore, and affiliated knickknacks of every sort. Vintage lucha-libre films are projected against a wall. Even the friendly waitress pops up at your table from time to time wearing a luchador mask. The whole trippy affair brings to mind a goofy teenage fan’s bedroom, crossed with the type of apartment TV cops burst into only to discover a photo montage of the serial killer’s latest victim.

Still, a little kitschy Mexican-wrestling décor goes a long way, and it’s the cooking that makes a visit to La Lucha worthwhile. The brief menu is divided into botanitas (small, shareable snacks), tacos, and specialty-taco plates. We recommend the spring onions, grilled to a char and doused with lime. The tacos, with varieties including a juicy pulled pork and a toothsome poblano pepper and Oaxaca cheese, are served on single tortillas made by Corona’s excellent Tortilleria Nixtamal. This alone puts them in a higher class than most. They’re sold individually, allowing you to customize your own taco binge. The best taco, though, was the three-to-an-order “El Santo” plate, which combines crisped-up salt-cured pieces of beef, bits of grilled chorizo, and chicharrón. It’s a more freestyle approach to the art of the taco, and, fittingly, it’s named after the man widely recognized as the greatest luchador of all time.

Address: 1542 Second Ave., nr. 80th St.; 212-717-7800
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
Prices: $3 to $14.50
Ideal Meal: Sopa de tortilla, chorizo or lengua tacos.
Note: Lunch launches December 2, with a cemita poblana specialty sandwich.
Scratchpad: One star for the casual but very polished counter service; another two for the inventive riffs on Mexican food that mostly work.

La Lucha
Address: 147 Ave. A, nr. 9th St.; 212-260-0235
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 6 p.m. to midnight
Prices: $3 to $12.
Ideal Meal: Grilled onions, El Santo tacos.
Note: BYO for now.
Scratchpad: The space is a goof, but a fun one, and the food is simple and satisfying: two stars.

Mexican, Unmasked