Before I get down to the nitty-gritty of my Thailand trip, let me just get you up to speed on the past week. So, I roll back into town, and it’s the middle of winter. That’s bad, but what’s even worse is that I have no appetite: American food seems pallid, bland and joyless. Peter and I hole up in our house and make spicy noodles to console ourselves.
A few days after this rough transition, I finally go outside to meet Hagan Blount, aka the Wandering Foodie, at the Calexico cart in SoHo. I go because 1) Hagan seems like a maniac in the best way: He has voluntarily scheduled an entire month of NYC restaurant eating, breakfast, lunch and dinner, which comes out to 93 plates. It sounds exactly like one of my guidebook research trips, except a little longer.
Also, 2) I’m curious about Calexico, because I want there to be more Mexican food everywhere in New York City. If we can’t have giant Thai food courts, we can at least foster our neighbors to the south, who make almost as amazing colorful and tasty fresh food. (Whenever I come back from Mexico, I feel color and flavor withdrawal–like post-Thailand, but a little more mild.) My major complaint with Mexican food in NYC is that the tacos are too gigantic. A taco should be a snack, not a meal.
Calexico sets up shop right where I used to work (back when I had a job! Like, in the last century!), at Prince and Wooster, next to the Camper store. Great location. Uh. If it weren’t pouring rain, that is. It was raining so hard that our basement flooded, which made me late to meet Hagan. But, as if the gods were smiling on our foolhardy lunch, the sky was dry by the time we got there.
Calexico touts its carne asada–spiced grilled beef. So we ordered some of that in a quesadilla, which came with “crack” chipotle sauce. Oy. This treads dangerously close to Mexi restos with giant sombreros for decor. But anyway. Also loaded up on a chicken taco and a pork taco. And a side of guac.
Then we retired to the nearest Starbucks to eat. I love how, since Starbucks has saturated the landscape, they’ve basically been forced into becoming quasi-public spaces. This Starbucks, at the corner of West Broadway and Houston, was inhabited by a crew of older Italian gentlemen in cardigan sweaters, who weren’t really drinking anything, just shooting the shit. It reminded me of the Greek guys in the Dunkin’ Donuts around the corner in my nabe. It’s kind of like how the spot on which a temple used to exist continues to be holy, even if it’s occupied by an office park.
After ordering token teas, we shamelessly spread out our lunch and proceeded to sample.
Chicken taco: Totally meh. Soggy. I’m trying to cut back on factory-farmed meat, and this taco made it very easy for me. I had a couple bites and left it. And as usual, tacos are gigantic and bursting out of their corn tortillas. Mess.
Pork taco: Better. Nice grilled flavor. Drier, too, so everything holds together better.
Carne asada quesadilla: Total rainy day pleasure. I probably wouldn’t have gone to town on it in the same way on a sunny day, but in the gray and damp, the oozy melted cheese hit the spot. And the carne asada had some nice herbalicious treatment that the other meats lacked. This basically said, “Dude, we told you we specialized in carne asada–why did you even order those other things?”
“Crack” chipotle sauce, in case you’re wondering, is just chipotle mayo. Or maybe chipotle sour cream. Anyway, chipotle in something gooey. Also a good rainy-day pleasure, but not life-wreckingly addicting. No turning tricks in alleys for this stuff, that’s for sure. Oh, and the guac–forgettable. I honestly can’t remember what I thought about it.
Overall, Calexico made me a little depressed about the state of Mexican food in NYC. When I saw David Chang speak at B&N a little while ago, he was really putting his money on Mexican food as the next thing to get hip and super-flavorized. Calexico is, at least at this cart, impossibly far from anything Chang’s imagining. But if Calexico had been there back in 1999, when I worked right on the corner, I probably would’ve eaten lunch there a lot.
And it was a pleasure to eat with Hagan. He’s so energetic and enthusiastic about eating restaurant food for a month straight that I felt like I’d better step up and appreciate my job a lot more (I get serious restaurant burnout within a week on a research trip, and complain about it to everyone in earshot). He’s also basically living in Starbucks this month (I left him at the one where we ate, to kill time till his dinner date), and has not yet lost his shit after hearing the same songs a million times. Guidebook editors: Snap this guy up, and fast!