Chela & Garnacha

“Chela’s [sic] are usually short, but mighty,” says Urban Dictionary, which may or may not be the right place to find out more about Mexican beer. Although, I suppose UD’s definition applies to Chela & Garnacha, a small, but mighty Mexican eatery on 36th Avenue in Astoria. Food truck enthusiasts likely know or know of the Mexican Blvd. Food Truck — well, Chela & Garnacha is the brick-and-mortar manifestation of Mexican Blvd. It may not have wheels, but it packs plenty of punch.

When we sat down, we each ordered beers: XX (Dos Equis) for me and a Negra Modelo for MDP. We noticed rice and beans were not on the menu (“isn’t that odd” we each shared aloud), and proceeded to order two appetizers and one torta apiece.

All in all, the food and service are very good at Chela & Garnacha. Here’s a closer look at what we got.

Guacamole and Chips

guacamole and chips chela garnacha

At $8, you get a lot of guacamole and it doesn’t disappoint. The guacamole was thick and flavorful, while the chips were crisp and fresh. I recommend getting this dish or at least the salsa and chips, so that you have the opportunity to experience Chela & Garnacha’s delicious, housemade chips.

Intrincadas de Flor de Calabaza

intrincadas chela garnacha

I had never formally ordered intrincadas at a restaurant, but I’ve had delightful masa patties, fried to perfection, many moons ago. The word — intrincadas — alone may bring to mind trickery or deceitful machinations. But the delicious food it represents suggests otherwise.

Lightly fried zucchini blossoms sit upon a stack of guacamole, sour cream, and chipotle adobo (we’ll come back to this gem of a flavor later), with the crispy masa patties forming the foundation. The combination of elements was exquisite – the smooth guacamole contrasted with the sharp spiciness of the chipotle adobo, and the sour cream neutralized the overall flavor, in a good way. I loved the masa patties for their simplicity and well-executed purpose of supporting the toppings.

You must try these if you visit Chela & Garnacha. They also offer chicken-topped intrincadas.

Tortas

torta chela garnacha

I’ve written about tortas before — I am a fan of the sandwich. Often delivered on a Portuguese roll, I ask, “What can go wrong?” At Chela & Garnacha, the answer is “nothing,” because their chock-full-of-deliciousness sandwiches hit the mark.

MDP opted for the adobo torta, which is stuffed with the standard flavors of a torta (guacamole, cheese, lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and more) plus slow-roasted pork loin. It looked amazing, as MDP gobbled it up in no time (I couldn’t get a bite in). I chose the bistec en pasilla torta, with top round marinated steak in a “drunken beer” and Pasilla sauce. For both, our waitress asked us whether we’d like chipotle adobo or jalapenos on the sandwiches. We hadn’t tried the amazing intrincadas doused in chipotle adobo yet but my intuition told me the chipotle was the way to go.

We were so correct. The chipotle adobo sauce at Chela & Garnacha is outrageously good. It’s silky and strong, and spicy without setting your tongue on fire — that is, you can taste the nuances of the sauce very well despite the heat. It was an incredible addition to my torta.

I loved the Portuguese roll our tortas sat upon, and the steak was very good in my version. I highly recommend, although I get the sense many folks like the tacos.

You do you.

Chela & Garnacha is a great place to go on a Friday night, to tip back Mexican beer ($4 during Happy Hour) and sample fine renditions of tried-and-true favorites.

Chela & Garnacha
33-09 36th Avenue
Astoria, New York
Take the N/Q to 36th Avenue and walk a few blocks.

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The Red Cadillac (Union, NJ)

The weather forecast promised snow, but we decided to trek to New Jersey anyway. My Dining Partner (MDP) and I were dead set on delivering a brand new TV to my mom, a week before the Super Bowl, snow be damned. The TV was meant to be a gift for my mother’s birthday, which is in February, and we wanted to cap off the evening with a special dinner at The Red Cadillac, a Mexican restaurant located on Morris Avenue.

red cadillac nachos

Cadillac nachos

Situated among big box pharmacies and 7-11 outposts, The Red Cadillac features a genuine red cadillac out front. It’s no wonder the owner decided to park his car there; in the back, parking is spare. I pulled into the slosh-filled driveway and parked my car in what was probably a handicap spot, but the blanket of white and grey muck obscured the wheelchair figure that was certain to be painted on the macadam. “This okay here?” I shouted to someone who seemed to work there. “It’s valet parking, but that’s fine,” he said. And so we entered.

A sign beckoning “no sports caps” welcomed us as we walked through the double doors of the entrance. Dim lighting washes the spacious interior and helpful hostesses greeted us and sat us at a table in the back. MDP observed that there were plenty more seats available at The Red Cadillac than parking spots behind the joint. We received plastic-covered menus on clipboards and proceeded to survey the options. A bucket of chips with chipotle-inflected salsa were brought to our table, along with some drinks. Honestly, the chips and salsa turned out to be the best part of the meal.

To begin, we ordered the Cadillac nachos, which come with bits of steak covered with monterey jack and cheddar cheeses. Tiny buckets of thickly chunked guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo sat in the center of the plate. I took two bites of the nachos and declared them unsatisfactory. The steak tasted like sausage and seemed out of place. The melted cheeses were fine enough, but didn’t scream authentic or special to me. Though we polished off the plate, I’m not sure anyone was thoroughly impressed with the fare.

red cadillac beef burrito

beef burrito

For our entrees, I ordered the chicken fajitas, while my mom got the beef burrito and MDP tried the pork chimichanga, per the recommendation of the waitress. My chicken fajitas were spicy enough (as requested), yet the seasoning was too heavily applied. There was little nuance of spiciness in this dish; it was all or nothing. The flour tortillas that accompanied my fajitas were stiff and cold, lacking the warm suppleness found aplenty in decent Mexican establishments. My mom enjoyed the burrito, but when I took a bite, it felt reminiscent of the Ortega seasoning in the make-your-own-burrito box from the grocery store. MDP’s chimichanga was fine, yet the chunks of pork were drowning in what tasted like the chipotle salsa used for the chips and salsa on the table. I wasn’t pleased with anyone’s dish.

When I received the bill, which I deemed too much for what we had (in terms of value; the prices were added up correctly), I was even more disappointed in the experience.

If you’re looking for good Mexican food, don’t look toward The Red Cadillac to satisfy your predilection. There’s got to be better Mexican food in New Jersey than this, so do some exploring. I found myself comparing The Red Cadillac to Dos Caminos and Rosa Mexicano, since TRC’s prices are nearly in the range of the high-end Mexican cuisine of those two restaurants. Without a doubt, the food isn’t nearly as good.

If you know of a decent Mexican place in the suburbs, give me a shout in the comments. I’d love to try a new restaurant.

The Red Cadillac

2258 Morris Avenue

Union, NJ  07083

Rocking Horse Cafe

I’m on the quest for the perfect meal that fits within my dietary restrictions. I did not find it at Rocking Horse Cafe.

rocking horse cafe guacamole

dimly lit guacamole

Touted as an excellent restaurant on Yelp, Rocking Horse Cafe did not live up to the expectations set forth by taste-bud-less reviewers on the site. While even New York succumbed to offering a positive review for the place, I cannot muster the strength to do the same. It simply wasn’t good. Even worse, the food was bland. And one has to wonder how someone creates bland food at a Mexican restaurant. Given the artillery of Mexican ingredients, you’d think they’d serve up the most fascinating (to my taste buds) meals on the planet. Not Rocking Horse Cafe.

Shortly after we arrived at the dimly lit establishment, chips and salsa were brought to our table. Sadly, I think the chips and salsa were the highlights of my meal. The salsa tasted fresh and housemade, rather than out of some Ortega jar.

After sampling the chips and salsa, we opted for some guacamole. This is when the meal started to tumble downhill. The guacamole appetizer is served with an array of relishes, as well as some soft, corn tortillas. Why not chips, you ask? I had the same question.  We used the chips we had that accompanied the salsa to scoop out the bland, tasteless guacamole. Though we finished it, neither of us was impressed. The relishes were okay, but not spectacular, and it was challenging to identify the contents of them. The guacamole itself simply had no flavor. It was just avocado mush.

rocking horse cafe mole michoacan

mole michoacan

I ordered a gluten-free dish off the menu called mole michoacan. On the menu, it sounded pretty good. But when it arrived, I felt differently. Plenty of sauteed onions covered the oversalted chicken in the bottom of the plate. The onions were fine, and were topped with some toasted pumpkin seeds (an elegant touch given the shoddy nature of the rest of the offerings). The chicken itself was pretty good, but, again, too much salt. It was served with sauteed kale that had the strangest flavor. I left it alone on the plate.

MDP got the carnitas tacos. Three miniature tacos were served to him. He wasn’t happy with the portion size, and didn’t seem too pleased with the flavor, as well. We also received rice (which was fine, hallelujah) and some soupy black beans on the side. They were okay, but, to reiterate, the highlight of the meal was the chips and salsa.

I’m not sure why people seem to like Rocking Horse Cafe. According to Yelp, the drinks are pretty good (I can’t drink them because of my diet), but the food is just so-so, at best.

Rocking Horse Cafe

182 8th Avenue (at 19th Street)

New York, NY

Take the A/C/E to 14th Street and walk north, or take the C/E to 23rd Street and walk south.

 

Rachel’s Taqueria, Park Slope

After eating adequate Tex-Mex in San Diego, I was interested to revisit New York’s rendition. On our way to see Melissa Ferrick at the Bell House, my dining partner and I stopped at Rachel’s Taqueria in Park Slope. Its over-the-top Mexican kitsch decor turned me off at first, but the food proved to impress.

guacamole at Rachel's Taqueria

guacamole

We started with the fresh-made guacamole. A guacamole man rolled a cart to our table and proceeded to unwrap two avocados, sprinkle some cilantro and onions into the mortar, and smash away using two spoons. At the end, the guacamole man placed one of the avocado pits on top of the guac and inserted two chips, which were, by far, the highlight of the meal. The homemade chips are thick, substantial. We went through two baskets of them. As for the guacamole, it was well-seasoned and dotted with small chunks of avocado–just the consistency I like. When we were in San Diego, we ordered guacamole and chips from El Zarape. They gave us guacamole that was near-liquid. Gross.

El cholo at Rachel's taqueria

El Cholo burrito

My dining partner and I both ordered burritos. Mine was the Baja, which is a smaller version of the giant California burrito they offer. It contained shredded chicken and spinach, sour cream, guacamole, lettuce, and cheese. It was great, but I could only eat half of it. I can’t imagine what a feat it would be to finish the California burrito.

My dining partner’s burrito was called El Cholo, a special, featuring carnitas, green tomatillo sauce, and cheese on top with a scallion for decoration. He ate the entire thing, so I’m thinking it was pretty delicious.

We didn’t order dessert at Rachel’s, though they do offer it. In addition to our meals, we drank pink lemonade margaritas on the rock, which were only $4.50 apiece. (It was too sweet for me, but MDP enjoyed his.) Overall, Rachel’s delighted our palettes in a way that San Diego’s Tex-Mex (that we tried) never could.

Rachel’s Taqueria

408 5th Avenue (between 6th and 7th sts.)

Park Slope, Brooklyn

Take the F/G/R to 4th avenue and walk a few blocks

Here’s a video of Melissa Ferrick playing “Freedom”, one of my favorite songs: