Pico de Gallo fulf ills its mod­est am­bi­tions

A wel­com­ing at­mos­phere and lineup of fa­mil­iar Mex­i­can-amer­i­can dishes made with care draw­ing crowds

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - UNWIND - By Susie David­son Pow­ell

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.

Pho­tos by Lori Van Buren / Times Union

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.

Pho­tos by Lori Van Buren / times union

na­chos at Pico de Gallo in Stuyvesant.

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