New York: Top 10 Downtown Joints to Launch a Noche Mexicana

Mayahuel (East Village) – Cocktail connoisseurs of Death & Co. build a tequila tabernacle to namesake goddess of pulque and agave. Dark, sexy atmo coupled with the smart pours will have you sinning and confessing, alternately. ● La Esquina (Nolita) – Bar scene with authentic Mexican food from über-scenesters Serge and Cordell. Dungeon chic and tacos. Not as stealth as at the start, but still holding its own. ● Los Feliz (Lower East Side) – Fat Baby peeps continue their colonization of Hell Square with South of the Border entry. La Esquina meets Spitzer’s over margaritas. Come get feliz.

Su Casa (Greenwich Village) – Speakeasy entry, small plates, extensive tequila list: zeitgeist is in full effect at this buzzy Mexican-style stealth spot. More style than you could ever hope to experience this close to a Qdoba, ● Mercadito Cantina (East Village) – If Momofuku were a taqueria. Narrow blond-wood bonanza, determined to spread the love of Oaxacan flavor. No license for hard liquor, but cocktails fake it admirably with “Tric-quila.” ● Papatzul (Soho) – Complex Mexican fare, can feel unexpected if you’re used to three hard-shell tacos and a side of E. coli from the local Taco Hell. Enough free-flowing tequila to dislodge the stick from most anyone’s ass. ● Cabrito (West Village) – Turquoise walls, red light bulbs, no-res policy give LES feel to hopping W. Vill. hacienda. Energetic vibes stoked by Smokin’ Durazno Fizz, made of peach, honey, and tequila. ● Móle (Lower East Side) – Postage-stamp-sized joint tricked out with Mexican tchotchkes and Talavera tile, looks good in the candlelight. Damn fine margaritas, with nary a drop of sour mix in sight. ● Agave (West Village) – Mahi mahi tacos swim past your eyes in a colorful dining room of adobe walls, mahogany floors, and trellised ceilings. Tank up from the endless tequila list, wander into the mountains to hallucinate yourself stupid while eating lobster and mango quesadillas. ● Barrio Chino (Lower East Side) – Comfy, serene, open to the LES street, which gets less barrio and less Chino every day. Something about agave makes us sin profusely. Good eats, too, should you be in the market for tacos and tortas.

Cabrito Saves Carmine Street

For fear of sounding like Russ Smith, the Maryland crab-obsessed former editor and columnist of the New York Press, I will begin with talking about “my wife and I.” My wife Maddy and I have been pining not just for the fjords but for a Mexican restaurant in the West Village-SoHo zone that isn’t too purist, isn’t too cheesy — the latter, literally. In all of Manhattan for that matter. We like La Esquina in SoHo. We love the enchiladas and the watermelon margaritas at West 14th Street’s El Rey del Sol (but it’s a dump, Miss Davis). God bless Tortilla Flats in the West Village for its Velveeta-y chile con queso and the enduringly sweet staff. But how long can you worship Ernest Borgnine and Bingo, while suffering James Brown and those uproarious bridal showers where some dog in a “squinchie” and pleated denim shorts takes off her top, and then weeps.

I am talking too about a “Mezzican” joint that doesn’t serve their margaritas with jet-fuel Triple Sec, and within curvy, stupid, 24-ounce glasses, but simple tumblers. A glass that doesn’t have “fan fare.” It happened a couple of months ago. And we collectively say, “Yay! “La Etcetera.”

The frat-sy, Upper West Side-vibed Barfry — what a surprise — one day just simply was … gone. And faster than a mule with a leaking coke bag up its hindquarters, Cabrito was there in its place. The new joint is welcoming simply by having an open-air front with the C-shaped bar right in your face. The staff seems like they migrated from Orchard Street when the bars there were just bars. Good-looking, extremely well-informed, and dare I say, proud of both their food and their drinks.

Drinks, particularly during heat waves, are essential. And “The Margarita” should have italics on the “The.” It’s served in a short glass and is comprised of silver tequila, agave syrup, fresh lime juice, and that’s it. That is perfect. “No burn,” said the alcoholic. It’s $10 a pop. They also make a great Dark and Stormy ($12) , as well as other specialty drinks, such as the Sazerac ($12): Tequila Plata, St. Germain, Absinthe, citrus, and bitters. Our larger-than-life painter friend John is addicted, but he is addicted to life, so it’s a bad example. Maybe he’s addicted to everything.

The food rises to the level of the cocktails. “The seared yellowtail hamachi with caper sauce is sick,” says Smith & Mills owner Matt Abramcyk, who is sitting next to me right now. He means “sick” in the best way, homeboy. For starters, we’ve only tried the guacamole and chips, but it was the right spice, as in I-need-a-water-hot, and the right size. Heard great things about the jalapeno rellenos, which is $8; the special ingredients are cod and raisins.

The tacos, enveloped in homemade corn tortillas, are supreme. We went for them four early evenings in a row. Our favorite is the homemade chorizo, which are spicy as shit. But we also have brought home the seared skirt steak and fried and battered fish variety. All range between $5-$6. Purists are raving over the tongue tacos, braised in salsa verde. We also tried the cheese enchiladas ($14), which had a depth that was so much more than the greasy variety. I think there’s a tamale stuffed in there.

Maddy’s cousin, Woodrow, tried the carnitas ($18) the other night, and the pork tasted perfect right off the bone: fatty in a good way, smoky, delicious. And the bartenders heartily recommend the heritage pork green-chili stew ($16). The deal at Cabrito is that it’s a little bit uppity, a little bit blue-collar. It’s just the right mix. And we are so trying out the brunch, which includes the obligatory huevos rancheros but also, say, braised crispy tortillas with fried eggs and green sauce.

You want beans — big, hot, juicy beans (don’t get us started on beans)? There’s black beans, soupy beans, and refried beans, which we order for the three of us (we’re swingers) every time. They have flavor beyond the waxiness inherent elsewhere.

Elsewhere: where not to go now.

P.S.: For wimps, the menu lets you know what is vegetarian (V) and what is spicy (S).

P.P.S.: The place is already too popular, Thursdays through Saturday. And when it is, you can’t hear a thing. Music is mostly classic rock, which is fine. We were in bliss on a late Sunday afternoon with a storm coming in and owning the bar. Go early.