As a kid, one of my favorite memories was going to what was dubbed “Taco Tuesday” at the recreation center at the local military base. They would have a taco bar with all the fixings set up, and I loved how you could customize your tacos with all your favorite things, nothing more, nothing less (perfect for an early adapter vegetarian!) While I’m sure the concept wasn’t pioneered at this particular Air Force base in Oklahoma, it certainly seemed like a revolutionary concept to little 8 year old me. Add the fact that Full House would be playing each week and projected onto a screen on the wall only added to the allure (any other Uncle Jesse fans out there?!)
Flash forward a few decades and nothing much has changed in terms of my love of Mexican food night. Give me a bowl of guac and fierce margarita and we can break bread (err, tortillas) together anytime. So I was clearly thrilled to stumble upon what I now deem as my new favorite Taco Tuesday joint: Villa Cemita.
Nestled in the East Village, this small restaurant offers New Yorkers a big taste of Puebla, Mexico. Family owned and operated, the restaurant prepares dishes that marry the culinary traditions of Mexico’s colonial period with the outside influences brought by the Spanish, French, and Arabic cultures. The result is dishes as rich and varied as the town of Puebla itself, where owner Alejandra Aco and her son and daughter hail from.
The menu includes both traditional Puebla dishes as well as national dishes found throughout Mexico. For a first taste, begin with an appetizer—handmade quesadilla de huitlacoche. You can taste the freshness and subtle flavors of the handcrafted corn tortilla, folded around melted string cheese imported from Oaxaca, with jalapenos and huitlacoche (or corn smut, a type of mushroom that grows on corn). Another specialty is huarache—the same housemade tortilla, but in a flatbread shape, topped with beans, queso fresco, crema, avocado and your choice of roasted chicken tinga or steak.
You’ll also find a choice of tacos (oh happy day!), like those well known all over Mexico, such as carnitas, vegetable, steak and crispy fish. But the taco arabes have a more interesting story: Created when Lebanese people migrated to Mexico and made their own versions of the local food; instead of their familiar lamb, they spit-roasted pork, marinated it in parsley and Mexican oregano, and wrapped it in a flour (rather than corn) tortilla with housemade chipotle sauce and marinated onions. Taco orientales have the same filling, but with a corn tortilla wrapper. The street vendors in Puebla offer both varieties. And, for those who have never dared before, Villa Cemita is the place to try chapulin tacos—crispy, spicy pan-fried grasshoppers (also imported from Mexico to ensure they are high quality and clear of pesticides) crunchy and addictively delicious, piled into a corn tortilla with guacamole and pickled onions.
Perhaps the most famous food from Puebla is mole poblano with its uniquely balanced sweet and savory sauce composed of 32 ingredients. Legend has it that the kitchen of the former Santa Rosa Convent was the birthplace of mole poblano in the 16th Century. The sauce is prepared in a process that takes a whole day, toasting, grinding and frying spices, combining chocolate, chili ancho, chile pasilla, almonds, peanuts, cinnamon to make a paste before mixing with chicken stock. The delectable rich brown sauce is served over roasted chicken breast with corn tortilla to soak up every last bit of sauce.
Desserts include chocolate flan, a wonderful rendition of the famous tres leches cake (omg, this was to die for!) and ever-popular churros dipped in Nutella (ya know, for that East Village twist!)
Excellent libations include margaritas infused with jalapeno and cucumber; mango, and other flavors, pico de paloma – Tequesta, jarrito grapefruit soda, lime, jalapeno; and the beauty elixir composed of Klir Red, Quinn’s Cove, strawberry puree, ginger, lemon juice, simple syrup, cucumber slices, and rose sparkling wine.
Fitting in with the vibrant and eclectic East Village, Villa Cemita has a bright colorful décor, set on the backdrop of a modern/rustic look (think exposed brick walls paired with Restoration Hardware style tables and chairs), and finished with specially commissioned paintings by graffiti artist Christopher Florentino. The only thing separating Villa Cemita from the Taco Tuesdays of my childhood is Michelle Tanner in the background exclaiming, “You got it, dude!” So stop in on a Tuesday, and meet me by the bar, okay?:-) Salud!