What it’s like to eat at New York’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant
No dress code, no budget-busting prices: take the subway to Long Island City for a meal to remember.
Words by Ute Junker
This story first appeared in Traveller
The shorts come as a surprise. I was expecting Casa Enrique, New York’s cheapest Michelin-star restaurant, to be more relaxed than some of the city’s other fine diners but when I arrive on a warm summer evening, I’m a little taken aback by the complete absence of long trousers among the guests seated at the restaurant’s outdoor tables.
That includes the table of young women workshopping their friends’ relationship updates, and several families who have brought their kids for an early dinner. Babies gurgle happily at two different tables while another group of diners has brought along their white Labrador, which lies contentedly beside a drinking bowl that has been put out for it.
It is not the crowd you normally encounter in a Michelin-starred restaurant. But that is not the only thing that is unusual about Casa Enrique. A stayer in New York’s ultra-competitive dining scene, this no-frills Mexican restaurant has held a Michelin star since 2014 but has remained resolutely affordable.
That sets it apart from many of its contemporaries. New York’s best restaurants are among the most expensive in the world. The nine-course tasting menu at three Michelin starred Eleven Madison Park, for instance, is US$365 per person. That’s not including the wine pairing – which starts from $115 per person –tax at 8.875 per cent, and the standard 20 per cent tip.
Casa Enrique’s a la carte menu is far more budget friendly. An entrée of ceviche, delicate slices of raw fish marinated in lime, served with onion, tomato and serrano chile, costs US$24, while a chicken enchilada is US$25.
The mains are the real stars of the menu. The specialty of the house is mole di Paixtla, chicken enveloped in velvety sauce made with almonds, raisins, sesame, chocolate and seven different chiles that is simultaneously nutty, sweet, bitter and tongue-numbingly hot, and costs US$27.
Other favourites include the branzino al pastor, marinated in guajillo and achiote, grilled and served with pineapple and coconut sauce (US$35) and the most expensive dish on the menu, chamorro de borrego al huaxamole – lamb shanks braised in chile pulle, huajes and coriander, served with rice and beans. It is yours for US$42.
In a city where everyone is always eyeing the margin I ask Cosme Aguilar, Casa Enrique’s softly-spoken chef, why he hasn’t put up his prices. He smiles.
“When we got the Michelin star, I asked friends that have been in the industry much longer than I, ‘What should we do now?’ Everybody says, ‘Don’t start changing things’.”
And he hasn’t. Keeping the prices affordable has let him keep a loyal local clientele even as he regularly gets bookings from overseas visitors. (“We get bookings from Japan, even Australia!”) The fit-out – from the white-washed interiors to the curbside tables – has stayed simple, and the drinks list matches the Latin flavours on the menu with Mexican beers, Spanish wines and cocktails such as mezcal martinis and mezcal negronis alongside Pisco sours.
The menu at Casa Enrique, based on Aguilar’s family recipes, has dishes to appeal to every palate. The taco section includes child-friendly fillings such as homemade crumbled chorizo and beer battered market fish alongside more adventurous options such as cow tongue; the mains are more complex and some have a serious dose of chilli.
If you do find a favourite dish, you can rest assured that it will still be on the menu next time you return. “It’s the same menu as when we opened,” Aguilar says. “The products we use are in season all year round so we never take items off, although we always have one or two specials.”
Aguilar is an accidental chef. Originally, trained as a mechanic but couldn’t find work when he migrated to the United States in 1998. One of his brothers was working in a French restaurant and got him a job as a porter. Soon after he moved into the kitchen.
“I was already a very good eater, but that is where I fell in love with food,” he says. “I was so lucky to be among great chefs; all I wanted was to be one of them.”