Opened in 2010, Casa Mezcal was a part of the first wave of restaurants that helped re-shape Mexican cuisine in New York, introducing the city to authentic antojitos and tantalizing tlayudas. The brainchild of artist Guillermo Olguin and restaurant vet Ignacio Carbadillo, the almost six-year-old Orchard Street restaurant remains a solid homage to the Mexican state of Oaxaca, showcasing the region's art, cuisine and culture.
The street-level bar and restaurant that first welcomes diners is as tightly crammed as any narrow LES tenement-turned-restaurant, but Olguin and Carbadillo craftily use their limited space to exhibit a large collection of traditional Mexican arts and crafts. Indigenous sculpture vies with a bountiful selection of mezcals for space in the brightly painted jadeite bar. Even the ceiling is a canvas for colorful displays of the intricate cut paper art known as papel picado. While the overall effect is attractive, the restaurant's larger second floor art space and dining room is a much more comfortable space to sit back and take in the scene and cuisine.
Casa Mezcal is not shy about presenting Oaxaca faithfully and authentically. In addition to the usual chicken and beef, you can also top your order with chapulines, those crunchy grasshoppers that are an important source of protein in the Oaxacan diet. Although served atop an uncharacteristically inartful heap of mixed greens, the chapulqueso ($15) is still an easy introduction to entomophagy. The slight shrimp-like flavor of the grasshoppers, combined with the crispy pop of their exoskeletons, is an excellent contrast to soft strings of melted provolone. For those less inclined to experiment with their entradas, guacamole ($7.50-$12) is a safer choice. A side pairing of red and green salsa helps to tame the kitchen's generous hand with the salt—the spicy red salsa is especially delicious with a subtle orange sweetness tempering the chile heat.
Of all the dishes on the menu, the restaurant's mole de pollo Oaxaqueño ($23) is the standout winner. Based on a family recipe featuring over 32 ingredients, the complex mole sauce is a soulful expression of Oaxaca's terroir, with chiles, raisins, seeds and chocolate coming together in an earthy and spicy blend. The soft corn-perfumed tortillas on the side are bursting with summer sweetness and prime examples of how even simple food can be superlative. Given this attention to detail, it's surprising that the chorizo in the botana Oaxaquena ($28), a Oaxacan mixed grill, is so disappointingly stringy and bland. Dessert is a similar miss with the tres leches cake ($11) bearing the unmistakable staleness of dairy that's sat in the fridge too long.
It's much better to end on a high note with a mezcal cocktail featuring Olguin and Carbadillo's own Los Amantes brand of premium mezcal. Better yet, descend into the restaurant's subterranean bar, Botanic Lab, for an entire evening of flashy mixology. Casa Mezcal's kitchen may need a little fine-tuning to reach the top, but thankfully, the party's going strong at the bottom.
BY: TIME OUT COMMUNITY REVIEWER OMAR TUNGEKAR