I read a review of El Centro by Nosher this week that echoed exactly how I felt when I ate there in February. The expectiations, the disappointment, and most of all, the optimism for the place's potential- if just a few little changes were made. Here's the gist of what was written:
When Chopper, HungryMan, and I visited recently, we found lots of passably decent dishes–and we ordered quite a bit of food–with nary a standout in the bunch. Nothing we ate was bad, by any means, but none of it made us want to rush back to El Centro.
While I did think the frozen margarita I drank during dinner was great, I hope that El Centro isn’t going to settle for mere adequacy in its food, especially when its problems seem to be simple ones, problems that might be eliminated with a few hours of watchful kitchen supervision on the part of the management. After all, it would be a shame to fill Vynl’s old digs with a restaurant that amounts to little more than a margarita bar that just happens to serve food [NYCNOSH]
When we went, El Centro had only been open for a week- and being a really big Hell's Kitchen (the restaurant) fan, I was pretty excited. El Centro is the authentic mexican "street food" offshoot to Hell's Kitchen, a more upscale restaurant with Mexican flavors. I like to think of it as what Fatty Crab is to 5 Ninth. Same chef, right around the corner, stripped down- more authentic food. I didn't necessarily think the food was going to be as good as Hell's Kitchen (after all it was billed as straight up Mexican street food), but I felt like it was going to be a great addition to the neighborhood.
In the end, while it was a really fun place to drink and eat with friends- the food that we got did not live up to how good it sounded on the menu.
What we got, and the +/-, after the jump…
There were six of us eating so we ordered some Guacamole & Chips ($7.00). The chips were fresh, and seemed home-made, but chips are usually free at a Mexican Restaurant- so in essence you are paying $7.00 for guacamole (not chips and guacamole), and the portion they give you is unnecessarily skimpy. There was nothing wrong with the guacamole, but I think they should either a) give you a little bit more, or b) lower the price just a little bit. Even $5 would have been easier to swallow. Not to mention, if a table of six orders 1 order of guacamole, and you know how small it is, the waiter should have let us know that we might have needed more.
We then got a couple of smaller things to share.
- Goat Cheese Empanada ($4.00)
- Vegetable Quesadilla ($5.00)
Both were delicious, but once again, we didn't order enough for the table of six. Definetely our fault… But the real problems with the meal were the main courses.
I have never had a Pozole before, and maybe this shouldn't have been my first one, but it sounded delicous, so I went with the Lamb Pozole w/ Mole Negro. While I really enjoyed the hominy, there was barely any Lamb in it, and even though it was totally covered in a dark sauce it was very under spiced and totally devoid of flavor. I'm hoping it was because it was their first week- and since then they have improved the dish. If you had a different experience, please comment- I'm really hoping this dish has gotten better.
Now on to the Chilaquiles, which two of my friends ordered. Now, none of us have ever had traditional chilaquiles before, but we figured that since Hell's Kitchen was so good, we were in capable hands. It's described on the menu as Homemade Corn Tortilla Casserole Topped w/ Avocado, Queso Blanco, Crema Fresca & Pico De Gallo. You can get it with Pork, Vegetables or Chicken for $11.00, Shrimp or Fish for $14.00. I think casserole was probably not the right word for this dish. I would have called it Nachos. They were delicious nachos, but nachos nonetheless. The dish was basically the same chips, layered in a bowl with the toppings described above.
I personally throught it tasted great, but the dish they served seemed much more like an nacho appetizer then a main course to the people who ordered it. It was more chips then anything else and after having the chips w/ guacamole and salsa before the meal, it was too much chips for one meal… prompting one friend to repeat "Does anyone want a bowl of chips with their chips?" for the rest of the night. The burrito another friend ordered seemed really good- but the damage was already done. This was the place with all the chips.
In the end, I don't cast all the blame on El Centro though. The dishes we ordered as appetizers were delicious, and one of our friends really enjoyed the Burrito. Most of the problem came from the two people who ordered dishes where they didn't get what they expected, and when all was said and done, we felt a little cheated. The description of the Chilaquiles could have been better, and considering the ingredients, the portion size and what it is- it shouldn't cost over $10 and maybe shouldn't be a main course.
El Centro has gotten some disappointed reviews, but it's also gotten some raves- which leads me to believe that it is possible to have a really good meal there, and probably depends (as usual) on your taste, expectations and what you order. I will definetely go back to give the place another chance. Hell's Kitchen is too great a restaurant for this place not to be better. The menu and dish preperations make it seem so much more fun then a typical mexican place. If I go back with a large group, I'll probably order the Chilaquiles as an appetizer for everyone to share. I also think it might be perfect to drop in for for an Empanada, taco or quesadilla as a lunch or fun casual dinner. All in all, the potential is there… just looking for a little bit better execution.
- Vnyl has moved, but the fun remains. Really fun and playful atmosphere.
- Great place to drink. We enjoyed the sangria, and the margaritas were good as well
- Small and intimate but lively
- Could be considered cheap if you are used to eating at Eatery, Xing or Whym in the same neighborhood
- Cheap, Mexican street food, this is not, so if you are looking for standard Mexican, you might want to go somewhere else
- Small, cramped and noisy. No reservations so you may have to wait on busy nights
- Could be considered expensive for the portion size or if you are used to eating at cheap Mexican places. Looking back on it, when you consider the neighborhood, and what type of restaurant it is, it's really not expensive at all, but for some reason it felt that way at the time.
El Centro, 824 9th Ave, 646-763-6585
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