Last March, 25-year-old East Village institution, Puebla Mexican Food, was forced to close from a rent hike. Emblematic of the restaurant world’s circle of life, Villa Cemita, a café focused on the fare of Mexico's central Puebla region, was simultaneously launching a block away. Villa Cemita has since transformed from café to full-service restaurant, allowing proprietor Alejandra Aco to offer a wider variety of national cuisine as well as some lesser known Puebla dishes from her childhood.
Two large graffiti-style paintings commissioned by Brooklyn artist Flore face each other from across the dimly-lit dining room, popping off the dark brick walls with vibrant red, yellow, orange and turquoise. While Latin jazz and upbeat salsa induce subconscious rhythmic finger tapping, the net effect is seductive, yet casual with just a hint of Mexican flair.
Though lacking a liquor license, Villa Cemita makes do surprisingly well with its jury-rigged cocktails. Tequesta is a proxy for tequila in the slow burning Jalapeno Cucumber Margarita ($12) and the Chapulin Colorado ($14), a summery concoction not unlike a spicy island swizzle, also uses the agave liqueur with pleasing results. The beer list includes more than just your standard fizzy Mexican lagers with select local craft such as the begging-to-pair-with-mole Greenport Harbor Black Duck Porter ($8).
Among conventional offerings, the Super Cemita Poblana ($15) is an Instagram-worthy sandwich requiring massive hands and a double-hinged jaw. Sadly, looks belie taste; the breaded steak is so leathery it might as well be fried beef jerky. Chile rellenos ($17) fare better: the large, savory Poblanos come stuffed with gooey Oaxacan cheese and topped with a chunky tomato sauce and drizzle of Mexican crema.
More unusual menu ingredients are likewise employed with varied results. A grilled cactus salad ($11) comes noticeably underdressed. The quesadilla appetizer ($12) meanwhile, chock-full of umami-rich huitlacoche (a.k.a. corn smut) could be ordered as an entrée and would be a fine one. Then there are the Chapulin tacos ($9) made from imported Puebla grasshoppers roasted with salt, garlic, chili, lime and white wine. They’re beautifully smoky and vinegary like crispy cured olives. Though not for the unadventurous, those who order will surely be rewarded.
One of the more tiresome dining refrains in New York are West Coast transplants bemoaning the lack of good, authentic, Mexican food in this city. The barely year-old Villa Cemita seems eager to help change that narrative and while it’s not quite there yet, perhaps in time, it will be.
BY: TIME OUT COMMUNITY REVIEWER MICHAEL PEARSON
|Venue name:||Villa Cemita|
50 Avenue A
|Cross street:||between 3rd and 4th Sts|
|Opening hours:||Mon 4-10:30pm; Tue-Thu 4-11pm; Fri-Sat 11am-11pm; Sun 11am-10pm|
|Transport:||Subway: M,J,Z to Delancey St/Essex St, F to 2nd Ave, L to 1st Ave, 6 to Astor Place|
|Price:||Average main course: $20|
|Do you own this business?|