My first thought: a hundred reasons and more than a dozen years would prevent me from reviewing Monica’s Nueva Cocina & Mi Lounge. I have known the owner, Monica Greene, since before I became a restaurant critic. Despite my closet full of disguises, I figured there was no way I could sneak in without being recognized.
One late-September morning, though, I called Greene to ask her how the restaurant was doing. She outlined many of the changes she went through during the year it took to open. Her original plan for the space was to create a 70-seat, chef-driven, regional Mexican restaurant called Tajin. At the time, Greene was itching to get back in the kitchen and cook the food she grew up eating. She chose the name to honor Mexican history. At the El Tajin ruins near Veracruz, archaeologists uncovered relics from the Olmec people, the first major civilization in Mexico.
After neighboring restaurant Sushi Axiom closed, Greene changed her concept. She incorporated that space and geared her food to a more mainstream audience. She doubled the original fl oor plan to 7,600 square feet that include two dining rooms, two bars, room for 200 guests, and the sushi bar left by Sushi Axiom. She changed the menu from fried grasshoppers, venison carpaccio, frog legs, and no chips and salsa to “real Mexican food with a respect for Tex-Mex.” Greene hired chef Hector Hernandez from Alma and Hibiscus, and she put herself in the front of the house.
Near the end of our chat, Greene said something that I now wish she hadn’t. She told me she was leaving for New York in a couple of days and, after that, she was taking a vacation in Turkey. I decided to write the review. I could eat anonymously, and, if it came to that, I figured our friendship could survive a negative review.
Two nights later, a couple of friends joined me for a meal at Monica’s Nueva Cocina. Knowing Greene was out of town gave me the freedom to cruise around the space and check out the details. Two are hard to miss. Greene honored the Olmecs by hanging on a blood-red wall two 6-by-4-foot replicas of giant masks uncovered in the El Tajin ruins. I scooted over to one of the two bars and explored the two outdoor spaces—smoking without dogs and nonsmoking with dogs. Then I made myself at home inside Mi Lounge, the dimly lit space formerly occupied by Sushi Axiom. The room is divided by a glass case displaying 24 colorful lucha libre wrestling masks, each a unique, intricate design.
I returned to the table to find my friends in a tizzy. “I cannot read this menu,” one said. “I don’t know if it is the font or the design, but it gives me tired head.” I glanced over the page. I saw the words “Peru,” “lasagna,” “sushi,” “lengua,” and “kimchi.” I had to close my eyes to prevent a horrific flashback to the towering plates of one-world-on-a-plate cuisine that were ubiquitous in the ’90s.
Our first dinner was disappointing. The arroz chaufa was nothing special. The green beans, red and green bell peppers, garlic, carrots, scallions, and cilantro stir fried with jasmine rice could have used double doses of garlic and ginger. A 2-inch-thick tomahawk pork chop, ordered pink, was overcooked. I sliced through the center and found a dark gray interior. I poured an extra helping of the accompanying piquant chiltomate sauce over it, but the meat was tough and dry. The saffron rice was, however, spectacular. And the best dish was the sous vide chicken resting on a mole negro (a 27-ingredient sauce made by sous chef Luisa Sanchez, a veteran of Komali). After the plates were cleared, my friends told me they liked the food, but if they, not I, were paying, they would not return.
I called in my second line of offense to join me for a second and third visit, both lunches. Mexican-Japanese restaurants are trending in Mexico City, Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo, and Greene steps right into the spotlight with a brilliant tempura-fried crabmeat, avocado, eel, and jalapeño roll, and a ceviche made of plump, sweet shrimp from Mazatlan, octopus, mussels, scallops, and crab with a peppery tomato sauce. But her Aca y Alla signature dish, Monica’s Mexican Lasagna, was a bland, tepid version of the one I remember. Our lunches would have been more enjoyable if the restaurant had been buzzing. But both times there were just a few other tables, and the dining room felt cavernous and sad.
After three meals, I was underwhelmed. But then came the final dinner, a meal that makes writing this review more difficult than it should have been. For the occasion, I rounded up my group of closers, three women who are professional eaters and travelers. They are smart, discerning, and have sophisticated palates.
I left my car at the valet stand and paused briefly to admire two 4-foot weeping atlas cedars at the entrance of the restaurant. The door swung open. “Oh, Nancy, it’s so wonderful to see you,” Greene said as she opened her arms to embrace me. “Is this your first time here?”
“Yes,” I lied.
Greene showed me around and introduced me to loyal customers. I could see my closers sitting on the patio, waiting for me. Seeing Greene, their heads hung like defeated soldiers. One picked up her Ilume Cucu, a concoction of Tres Generaciones Reposado tequila, lime, cucumber, soda, and sweet-and-sour mix, and hoisted it high in the air. We surrendered our anonymity and turned the evening into Our Dinner With Monica.
To be honest, I felt uneasy and disgusted with myself for making my job more difficult. That said, I’ve always worked under the theory that being recognized in a restaurant does not make the chef a better cook. The service may be better and the portions more generous, but the quality of the food cannot vary much.
Our three-hour dinner began with two plates. One was filled with char siu gordita, the Mexican version of a Chinese pork bun. The other held a huarache, a corn flatbread shaped like its namesake sandal. Both are made with white corn masa. Greene’s face lit up as she talked about Marybel, a woman she hired from a small town outside Oaxaca, Mexico. Each morning, Marybel soaks organic corn in water and pushes the kernels through a grinder with her knuckles. She adds a little water and forces the bulk through a second time to make tortillas. For the huarache, she adds more water and grinds the white corn masa a third time.
“The smell of fresh tortillas is something important to this restaurant,” Greene said. “When I was a kid in Mexico City, I remember the fragrance of fresh tortillas. We would stand in the kitchen with our hands open and wait for warm tortillas. I put peanut butter, lime, butter, mayonnaise, or sugar on them, too.”
Marybel’s hard work pays off. For the char siu, the masa is fl at grilled and cut into small rounds. Then they are plunged in a deep fryer, where they puff up like doughnuts. A quick slice with a knife creates a pocket that is stuffed with barbecue pork, pickled carrots, and shredded napa cabbage. The huarache is covered with refried black beans, oyster and crimini mushrooms, Oaxacan cheese, and fresh arugula. The tastes of the two dishes represent two different cuisines, but there is no disconnect on the palate.
Greene and Hernandez are picky when it comes to ingredients. We learned that the walk-in refrigerator contains a pig head and mangos, shrimp, and avocados from Mexico. They don’t use tilapia, and they make their own queso fresco and sour cream. Greene doesn’t trust the source of ground beef, so she buys quality meat from a purveyor she trusts and grinds it each day.
As for the seemingly schizophrenic menu, Greene explained its deep roots. “If you go to Mexico City now, you will find a lot of the avant-garde restaurants doing some type of Oriental fusion,” she said. “Most people know the tamarind, mangos, and cilantro we use in Mexico were sent from Asia, and, in return, we sent back avocados, chilies, black beans, tomatoes, and corn. But some of those ingredients, like mangos, came to Mexico from India in the late 1800s. When the Spanish came in 1612, they brought capers, olives, onions, pomegranates, and almonds. Mexico has always used ginger and sesame seeds. We’ve had all of these ingredients for many years. Now we’re using them all together in a new way.”
As she spoke, the flying forks of my closers jabbed at a grilled lamb sirloin and roasted lamb breast. The dish particularly pleased me, as it proved there is more to lamb than just chops and leg. The meat was accompanied by a lime and lamb stock consommé with baby carrots, cipollini onions, and garbanzo beans, and a side of black beans. Next, they attacked soft tacos of braised beef tongue, onions, and cilantro sauced with a slightly sweet but fiery guajillo salsa. The discussion turned to whole animal consumption.
“Hector and I grew up in the culture of eating the whole animal,” Greene said. “Mexicans have been doing this for over 400 years.” We shared food love stories about gnawing on pig’s ears, crunching on chicken feet, and snacking on pickled pig lips. But even Greene has her limits.
“We had a big table in our kitchen that our butcher used,” Greene said. “When I was 6, he came in with a huge bag that was dripping some kind of liquid. He dumped out a cow’s stomach, and I was horrified by the sight. It’s still the only thing I can’t make myself eat because of that memory.”
I’ll remember my fourth meal at Monica’s Nueva Cocina for the conversation as much as the food. The dinner was wonderful, and it changed my thinking about the restaurant. How could it not? When you know the name of the immigrant woman who risks losing a finger as she grinds the corn that made your tortilla, it alters how you approach your meal. But I realize that most people who come to Monica’s won’t get to dine with the owner. If I had assigned this review to another critic, the outcome would have been much different. Will I tell you that the meals I ate during my four visits were all wonderful? No. Truth is, lunch can be excruciatingly lonely, and the kitchen hasn’t mastered every dish on the menu, which is poorly organized and designed. The sushi and the char siu gordita are excellent; the pork chop, ordered twice, was a disappointment.
My job is to offer guidance on how to spend your time and dining dollars. In this case, my bad decision makes that job more difficult than it normally is. A personal relationship has affected—and informed—my judgment. That relationship gained me a rare insight that I’ve tried to share so that you, too, might better understand the context of this restaurant and what its owner is trying to accomplish.
Should you go? If you know Monica Greene—and now I hope you do—the answer is yes.