Pico de Gallo fulf ills its modest ambitions
A welcoming atmosphere and lineup of familiar Mexican-american dishes made with care drawing crowds
Weekend brunch at Pico de Gallo in Stuyvesant is packed. Families, couples, friends of the new owners — two Hudson-based chefs — fill the small square dining room, which thrums in motion. Flags flutter from the ceiling; waiters hand off Jarritos Mexican sodas in bright fruit colors as they slide between tables with sizzling Tex-mex fajita boards that hiss and turn heads. On every table, stiff tortilla chips, fried dark gold in the small, open kitchen, are snapped and plunged into smoky house salsa flecked with charred poblano skins. Puebla pottery adorns walls, and music stokes a fiesta mood.
Though a printed brunch menu is under revision, the quick verbal rundown sounds familiar, and in minutes, fresh juice and beers wedged with lime are hurried out from the bar along with cinnamon-sugar-dusted Mexican French toast, the challah slices soaked in swoony, sweet tres leches cream. A lone taco, fried gringostyle for my picky son, is exactly as requested: seasoned ground beef, queso fresco and avocado, no sauce. Eggs — fried or poached to order — top huevos rancheros, an open-face tortilla thickly layered with chile- and cumin-scented sauteed tomatoes, rice and beans, and softly melting cheese. Enchiladas banderas, a house special of tortillas stuffed with ground beef, chicken and cheese are drizzled in creamy avocado, poblano suiza (Swiss) and spicy jalapeno-tomato roja, tri-color sauces that form the Mexican flag.
We sit back and marvel. It’s not yet noon. Service is fast and friendly, children are welcome and contentedly eat, neighbors at close tables admire incoming plates. Is this an ideal start to Sunday? Yes. Just save room for Mexican flan and soaked tres leches cake.
Pico de Gallo slipped onto the banks of the Hudson River almost unnoticed. It opened in May in the former Riverview Cafe, a farm-to-table restaurant popular with weekenders that struggled in winter and closed late last year. The new owners are Moises Ortiz and Carlos Gomez, chefs who met in New York City where Ortiz worked at Joe Allen, China Grill, ORSO and Windows on the World until the devastation of 9/11. Upstate, they worked at Mexican Radio in Hudson and Destino in Chatham until the latter closed this January. (It has since reopened.) Friends encouraged them to open a place of their own.
It’s a good sign to hear Spanish freely spoken across tables; Ortiz hails from Puebla, Mexico, and Gomez, a talented singer and the smiling presence front of house, is from Guatemala. In truth,
I was expecting more Puebla dishes. Instead, Gomez is proud that the somewhat simple lineup of Mexican-american enchiladas, quesadillas and tacos is New York-inf luenced, freshly made, health-conscious and attentive to New Yorkers’ dietary needs.
It means simple sides like yellow rice and seasoned black beans are vegetarian but lose no flavor, Tex-mex refried beans are made without lard, and tacos filled with steak, slow-cooked pork or tofu marinated in garlic and pico de gallo are uniformly assembled with fresh pico and queso in a galley kitchen, where avocados ripen for guacamole mashed with lime and cilantro, and soft tortillas warm on a castiron comal.
Ortiz at least shares his grandmother’s black bean soup and, crucially, Puebla-style mole, a complex, spicy-sweet, mahogany sauce that dates back to Puebla’s 17th-century convent of Santa Rosa. Made with ancho peppers, fried nuts, toasted spices, dried raisins and ripe plantains crushed to a smooth paste; neither Gomez nor Ortiz will say more. Only that it’s special and takes days to make. It shimmers like tempered chocolate and clings to sautéed sweet plantains like The Blob. We dunk and scrape and cannot get enough.
Bold flavors and light recipes remind me of the
Mexican of Southern California, a coastal connection that gave us the now-legendary Baja-style battered cod. No surprise their Ensenada fried fish tacos are smashing: a cleanly golden Dos Equis XX beer batter rivals raw red cabbage for crunch, and fresh mango slices sop up sweet heat from pineapple-habanero sauce. With it, we drink the recommended “mangoneade,” a blitzed mangomezcal margarita laced with hot sauce and salty tajin spice. As sweetly harmless as a night out with the Spice Girls.
Stuyvesant Landing is one of the narrowest river access points, where train tracks and fastflowing water lie perfectly parallel, and clanging bells provide only modest warning before an Amtrak train whips by. Riverview Street, an in-out loop off Route
9J, is easy to miss. The slope hides neat homes
arranged like polished stones, each with fresh paint and namesake views. At the bulge of the curve, closest to the tracks, Pico de Gallo and the town post office — only fully visible from the river — mark the end of the row.
Across the street is the pretty brick Stuyvesant railroad depot, which closed in 1950s and is now home to a seasonal farmers market. Beyond the tracks is the boat launch. A yellow sign warns that passing trains may exceed 80 mph, and I experience genuine, childlike joy every time the crossing gate comes down. At brunch we crane necks to catch the blur; by night, when the storefront windows frame unbroken blackness (and offer little insulation), the flashing of red lights signals the alert.
Midweek evenings are quiet, though a steady turnover of twotops and takeout suggests the fresh food and fair price point have secured little Pico its spot on the Hudson and on the map.
Brunch for four is around $75 with tax, before tip.
Susie Davidson Powell is a British freelance food writer in upstate New York. Follow her on Twitter, @Susiedp. To comment on this review, visit the Table Hopping blog, blog.timesunion. com/tablehopping.
Chicken taquitos — rolled crispy corn tortillas with chicken, cheese, chipotle mayo, lettuce, cilantro and onions — at Pico de Gallo in Stuyvesant.
Above, Mexican flan. At left, Ensenada fish tacos with a side of homemade pineapple habanero sauce at Pico de Gallo in Stuyvesant.
tampiquena — hanger steak with two roja cheese enchiladas, plantains and a side of rice and refried pinto beans — at Pico de Gallo in Stuyvesant.
nachos at Pico de Gallo in Stuyvesant.