This is how I remember Mexican food: The margaritas are strong but balanced, easy on the sweet and sour; the guacamole fresh and vibrant, with a heat that sneaks up on you; the carnitas tender, glistening and … [insert guttural noises] excellent.
Carnitas is my barometer. More precisely, the crispy carnitas as I remember it from Old Town Mexican Cafe in San Diego is my barometer: Pulls-apart-with-your-fork hunks o’ pork, browned and crispy on the edges, accompanied by a basket of hot, just-made tortillas (a couple of women make fresh tortillas all day long in a kitchen with large, street-facing windows), and a plate of simple, fresh, DIY taco fillings: sliced onion and tomato, avocado, fresh cilantro, lime wedges. (For photo, see here.)
When in doubt, just order the carnitas. And that’s exactly what I did at Móle, the utterly charming, seats 25ish Mexican restaurant in the Lower East Side that I’d previously blown off because of the sort of obtuse neon sign they’ve hung out front.
After a lovely, bubbly happy hour at the Living Room bar at The W Hotel in Union Square, after an all-star appetizer lineup of not one, but two orders of guacamole prepared tableside; an order of queso fundido, that molten, cheesey, chorizo-y, goodness, and an order of flame-grilled asparagus topped with melty sheaths of manchego cheese…
…I was stuck in an infinite loop of indecision. Do I order:
a.) The diver scallop tacos special. Hands-down the most intriguing item on the special board, I just couldn’t commit. Too many sketchy scallops have made me skittish about eating any that aren’t seriously vetted. (I’m sure I’ll come around again.)
b.) The fish tacos. My friend was looking to share an order of her favorite tacos — Baja-style battered-and-fried tilapia fillets, topped off with a creamy sauce and some serious lettuce plumage (they were beautiful). Yes, we had all consumed our fair share of guac, fundido, and more guac, and cheesy asparagus (not to mention tequilla) — but would it be enough? I couldn’t commit.
and c.) The conchinita pibil? The pollo en mole poblano? Camarones al mojo de ajo? One of the other, “fancier” items from the especialidades de la casa list that I ordinarily wouldn’t order, except that it was a special occasion? But which one? What if I got this fish Veracruz … and then realized that all I really wanted was …
“Um, I’ll have the carnitas plate, please. With corn tortillas.”