Shovel Time: El Original
Ouch. El Original had better watch its back after Javelina’s evisceration. Honestly, the primary reason I visited the former and not the latter is because you can reserve a table between 6pm and 9pm on Open Table. Less importantly to the world at large, I can also walk to it from work.
A couple years ago I was trying to sell a story about how kind of once gross and embarrassing regional cuisines were emerging in NYC with pride, using examples like Tex-Mex night at Goat Town, non-kitschy Hawaiian at Lani Kai, Burnside, the Midwestern bar serving fried cheese curds, and kolaches showing up in Bed Stuy, of all places. No one was interested. I still think there was potential in this but couldn’t get anyone to care about it as is often the case with my ideas. I’m probably sitting on ten equally genius pitches right now–anyone want one?
Goat Town and Lani Kai may be dead yet we live in a city newly flush with queso and Spam.
And so, 2015 Tex-Mex in NYC. I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t. All I know is that I love processed cheese–melted, semi-congealed, even with a skin forming on top–all of it. I got my queso, here the classic called chile con queso, as opposed to the other available style with guacamole, black beans and picadillo dubbed queso El Original. The salsa was mild and nothing special, though the chips were warm and I’d like to believe were freshly made.
My non-drinking dining companion a.k.a. “baby palate” who’s my go-to for BBQ, Italian-American, Tex-Mex, pizza and burgers even though she would insist she’s more versatile, made of point of saying the food wasn’t spicy. That’s saying something. You can ask for hot sauce. It’s Valentina. I don’t think of Tex-Mex as fiery so this wasn’t a disappointment, just a caveat.
I’ve been to Texas exactly once, just last year, briefly, under emotionally strained circumstances. But I know enough that they just call it Mexican (Mex Mexican is called interior Mexican), combos are where it’s at, ground beef and yellow cheese never tasted so good, and it can all be had with a strong margarita for $20. That’s not going to happen in Manhattan. Here, the combo plates, which sound like properly gut-busting, alone will put you two dollars north of that figure.
The shredded beef, which could be called brisket, was demurely portioned in the soft tacos. The flour tortillas are made with lard from Dickson’s Farmstand, a detail I didn’t notice until after the fact online and speaks to a sort of identity crisis. The refried beans and rice just seemed like beans and rice. Are we meant to care about the source of lard making the beans silky? Is the food pricey because it’s elevated Tex-Mex or because it’s Manhattan Tex-Mex? Can you even take Tex-Mex out of context without asking for trouble? Transplants complain about pizza or bagels outside of NYC but those are translatable. I will give the restaurant points for being big and cheerful–if you didn’t peer outside to see it was attached to the Skyline Hotel, you could be tricked into thinking you were in nice, modern strip mall.
El Original * 735 Tenth Ave. New York, NY