There are discriminating types, ones who have favorite cuisines and rarely stray. Say, someone devoted to Upscale American, French and Italian. For these types, maybe Japanese, if it is cooked. Maybe Chinese, if it is hot enough. Thai? Probably not. Mexican? Oh, no, definitely not.
There are as many foodie opinions on Mexican food as there are the strains of that cuisine. Most opinions are not good. And it’s all based on the variations of Mexican food we get to sample. But authentic Mexican? Very hard to find, even in New York City.
Yet, now there is a breakthrough in New York. There is La Camelia, 64 Downing Street at the corner of Varick. You walk out of the subway, turn the corner, and there is lovely, lovely food.
Mexican cuisine gets a knock because much of what is served in this country is either an Americanized variant [Tex Mex] or is so bloody fast-foody that there has been no time to nurture flavor. Cheap ingredients and preparation in under 45 seconds can only result in one thing: bad food.
Take chile relleno, for example. I’ve tried it many times and disappointment had always been my verdict. Then, once, in Santa Fe, I had the chile relleno. It was like eating the French cheese epoisse for the first time. It was brilliantly perfect. I returned to that restaurant five times over the next decade. Each time the chile relleno was abysmal. And so I despaired.
La Camelia is a newcomer on a foodie street in the West Village. I’d clipped an “opening notice” from the newspaper, planned to go, and then checked the menu online. And there it was, their chile relleno:
Chile poblano stuffed with Chicken, raisins, walnuts, sweet plantains, and fresh apple and topped with spicy chile de arbol sauce and Oaxaca Cheese
Now, that description has distinction. Open up a good Mexican cookbook, say 1000 Mexican Recipes by Marge Poore, and you find most relleno recipes are much simpler than La Camelia’s. La Camelia offers complexity and richness in their recipe. I had hope.
I ordered. I waited. I waited more. They have signature margaritas and I ordered another. The chips come with two salsas, a strong vibrant green that tingles your tongue and a subtle orange-colored one that the waitress warns you is hot. No, it’s very, very hot.
Did I mind the wait? Not at all. The drinks were good, the salsas interesting, the space itself pretty and quiet. And the wait told me that they were taking their time in the kitchen. Would interesting ingredients and that time produce great results?
This is the best chile relleno I ever had. Better than that great one in Santa Fe. Better than anything. Why? It was cooked to the right second, not just the right minute. You don’t want it undercooked, so that you need a knife with the pepper hard to chew and harsh to taste. You don’t want it overcooked into a soggy, limpid lump. And you want it blackened gently, not crisped. You want it cooked so it cuts with a fork and adds that unique pepper tone to what is inside.
The filling needs to be enchanting, not just a glob of cheap stuff. The dish needs to be broiled, not deep fried. It needs to be what they do here at La Camelia.
Their filling is complex in terms of the number, variety and categories of ingredients. You do get kaleidoscopic hints of those flavors with each bite, yet the overall feeling is of a rich “something” that you immediately love but can’t easily describe. All you say to yourself is “more.”
I’m headed back to La Camelia. If I can get the recipe to share with you I will. It’s that, that good.