We’ve all heard the east vs west coast argument for decades. Sigh. LA claims best Mexican food north of the border and cites NYC as a re-fried bean wasteland. New Yorkers have long declared that our Mexican restaurants are getting better all the time. Really. Swear. Then everyone huffs and puffs, and slide chips into their guacamole in stony silence. But the sulky years are behind us! As it happens, New York City has crept up the ranks and is now sitting pretty on a few posher Mexican spots as well as more elevated neighborhood places. Maybe all the marauding criminals that Donald Trump eschews are actually cooks! Ha.
Gourmet focused restaurants like Empellon Cocina, Cosme, and Mission Cantina have changed the landscape for good. And of course Empellon also has the more casual Taqueria and Al Pastor, Black Ant is doing innovative fusion, Fonda is a good neighborhood destination, El Presidente/Tacombi have the low key well covered and Zaragoza has the always fab taco take-out counter. Of course I’m leaving out dozens of great choices, but my focus here is about one delightful lower east side coup de grace to the Mexican dining scene…La Contenta.
Definitely cozy, originally the home of my all time favorite seafood restaurant Tides, it seats around 16 people at tables plus a few stools along the bar. The spirit of the place somehow makes it feel convivial not cramped.
Luis Arce Mota, chef/owner and his partner, Alex Valencia, an artist of the cocktail world, have done a spin on classic Mexican highlighted by French techniques. And that’s evident. Poached lobster in a chile morita butter sauce, Confit of chicken legs in mole sauce, a Queso Fundido with goat cheese, black olive tapenade, chilies and a guacamole with pomegranate & pumpkin seeds. The drinks are infused with various chilies and the list includes off the path agaves that are just finding their way onto menus around town with favorites like the nutty tasting Sotol, and the lovely to sip smokey Bacanora. There’s a healthy list of mezcals/tequilas and creative twists on standbys like the Prietoni, his take on the Negroni made with raicilla, campari & sweet vermouth – fantastic. Or my very tasty hibiscus margarita. And custom made cocktails are always on offer.
This isn’t the standard Puebla fare that infuses most mainstream joints around the city. Mota comes from Mazatlan and started his career here as a dishwasher at Carmines. He cooked under the tutelage of some top chefs at various NY restaurants like Bouley and then went to study at Le Cordon Bleu. Love that. He opened Cafe Condesa, then Ofrenda to success before selling his stake in both. Now he has the charmed and supremely good La Contenta. Alex Valencia holds an impressive mixology pedigree from a few cool places in town like Little Branch and also managed and designed the cocktails for both Yerba Buena’s, oh I had some truly inspired drinks there.
No photo of the Shrimp Veracruz Enchiladas in poblano sauce but a definite highlight and a must order.
I really like it here. The food is on point, the staff is thoughtful and engaging and the baked chips are among the best I’ve ever eaten. Bad news for me as I can’t stop but good news for chip lovers. They’ve done a lovely job in the space of making it all fit. Like an oversized jigsaw puzzle surrounded by the faintest imitation of a Keith Haring mural.
Ended the evening with a shot of an extraordinary tequila that our very dear waiter thought I would love. I did love it. But damn if I can remember what it was. I’ll be sure to write it down next time. There will so be a next time.
102 Norfolk Street between Irvington / Delancey
Monday-Wednesday 5pm-12, Thursday-Saturday 5pm-2am, Sunday 5pm-11pm
Happy Hour daily 4pm-7pm