Itzocan Cafe - 438 E. 9th St., East Village
Butternut squash shrimp bisque with saffron, tequila shrimp burrito, dulce de leche, Jarritos grapefruit soda
I wouldn’t call my childhood traumatic. And yet, even throughout the ravages of puberty, I believed that Taco Bell was the extent of Mexican food and penne in vodka sauce was the most that Italy had to offer. It came as a shock then when I learned just how much wider and better the gamut ran. When I tried my inaugural bites of homemade mango salsa or stinging nettle gnocchi, it was like my taste buds had turned on for the first time.
My lunch at Itzocan Cafe wasn’t quite that revelatory, but it came tantalizingly close. All three courses revealed unscaled levels of flavors and pleasures, while at the same time remaining simple and unpretentious. The meal even contained an impressive number of moments where I leaned back in my chair with a stupid grin, startled by and thankful for just how good it all was.
Undoubtedly, it helped that I knew the restaurant well. I’d been to Itzocan at least five times before so I knew that I preferred the lunch menu to the dinner, and that the specials were especially good calls. From my exemplary experiences with the pumpkin and zucchini soups, I also knew that their soup du jour wasn’t a course to pass up. Finally, because I loved the tequila shrimp burrito on another visit, I was sure I couldn’t go wrong there.
Even walking in with all of these advantages though, I was still disarmed. The intimate décor, dark and decorated with Mexican iconography, was as enjoyable as ever, and the upbeat Mexican music added another relaxing element to the mix. The waitress radiated sunshine, recommending dishes out of an obvious love for the food rather than trying to push the unpopular plates. I hadn't even started eating and I was already having a great time.
It only got better when she brought out my first course, the butternut squash shrimp bisque. As excellent as my two earlier soups had been, this one exceeded both. The squash had a light creamy flavor, but the sweet depths of the vegetable were on full display. The four sizable shrimp floating through the bisque were a delicious and unexpected extra. My full understanding of how good it was didn’t come until I found myself scraping the bowl, hoping to gather just one more spoonful.
The tequila shrimp burrito that followed was also wonderful, which is why I was getting it again. Loaded with brown rice and more shrimp than a Sizzler buffet, the burrito was a clean, upscale presentation of a meal that’s often not taken seriously. But like Mercadito’s tacos (see Jan. 9), the tequila-sauteed seafood and the freshness of every ingredient confirmed just how much potential there is in the Mexican basics.
After these first two courses, I was happy and sated, almost nervous to mess up my lunch with a substandard dessert. But my waitress raved about the dulce de leche, her grin a genuine crescent as she described it. I agreed, having only tasted this caramel and sweet cream confection through its Haagen-Daaz bastardizations. She brought it out, again promising that it was "so good." It looked like a soft crème brulee, when I’d been picturing a mousse. Digging in my spoon, I realized that my frozen yogurt preview had done little to prepare me. It was unfathomably good, rich and intensely flavored. Somehow, it managed to eclipse my prior two courses, and by a wide margin.
It’s incredible to have something for the first time, when it turns out to be that brilliant. It’s even better when it blindsides you, coming as a special that you wouldn’t have ordered. It’s even better when your taste buds roar back to life, reactivated and excited by the prospect there’s still so much out there to try. At Itzocan Café, that kind of experience is less of a fluke than a daily occurrence, which, heck, almost makes up for all those years of bad haircuts and thick plastic glasses. 10/10
Nyonya - 194 Grand St., Chinatown
Roti canai, mango chicken, coconut rice, coconut drink
It’s disappointing when you sense a restaurant you loved is headed downhill. You make excuses for it: maybe I hit it on a bad day, maybe I ordered the wrong thing, maybe it’s me and not the place. But there’s only so much nostalgia and loyalty can do in the face of lower standards. And while I’m not quite ready to give Nyonya the j’accuse treatment, my recent lunch made me worry just a little.
I’ve been there at least ten times, because it’s a great place to bring out-of-towners. Between the heady chaos of Chinatown, the distinctive but still relatively safe possibilities of Malaysian food, and the very reasonable prices, there’s a lot to love. There are dishes that’d be familiar to anyone who’s eaten in a Chinese restaurant and some that come with the alarming caveat “Please ask your server before ordering!” (The latter are usually the dishes I prefer.)
Because my friends Lindsay and Emilia seemed tentative about Malaysian, I offered to split the mango chicken instead of getting a wilder dish of my own. This wasn’t much of a compromise – in the past, the mango chicken has been excellent, plated beautifully in the skins of the fruit. This time though, the presentation was plain and the portion had clearly shrunk. Worse, the sweetness of the sauce had intensified to a level that’d please dentists before diners.
Another negative was the service, which, while not bad, seemed bored and slow. At times, we would have to flag waiters down for refills. This was again the reverse of earlier experiences, where our waitress was always efficient and friendly.
More reassuringly, the roti canai appetizer was still very good (though not as good as it once was), the coconut juice was tasty (though it used to come in a coconut shell instead of a glass), and the coconut rice was still a nice change of pace (nothing parenthetical to add here). So whether Nyonya is actually worse or we just caught it on a mediocre day, I can’t say for sure. However, I think it’s worth coming up with enough excuses to warrant one more visit. 5/10
From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out
- Name: Lonesome Hero
Saturday, April 30, 2005