Earlier this week Julian Medina turned his casual East Harlem taco stand La Chula into a tequila-fueled party, kicking off a special series of Taco Omakase Nights that he hopes will become a regular feature of his restaurant mini-empire. There were passed hors d'oeuvres, five cheffed-up taco courses, and a churro-based dessert, with shots and cocktails greeting guests at every turn. I was invited to attend the hours-long festivities as a guest (loved the food, skipped the booze), and here's the full report.
Raised and professionally-trained in Mexico City, Medina has been based in NYC for more than 20 years now, and today runs the upscale, contemporary-Mexican Toalache restaurants, the 24-hour Cuban diner Coppelia, and a pair of La Chulas, with more coming soon. The Taco Omakase concept isn't new, of course—Enrique Olvera famously hosts one at Pujol—but for Medina, it's a way to experiment and have fun with some of the food he loves that might not be an obvious fit on his regular menus.
Take the Bagel Taco, for example, which, despite the gimmicky tag was probably my favorite of the feast. The tortilla here is jacked up with "everything" spices, and the toppings include an excellent pastrami salmon, a liberal slather of jalapeno cream cheese, and a scallion tomato salsa made straight from Medina's own garden. This latter illustrates another opportunity inherent in the event: a one-night-only menu means he can try all kinds of things without worrying about scale, or securing a long-term supplier.
Like all thoughtfully-planned journeys, Medina's Taco Omakase hits a lot of different spots along the way. There was an excellent vegetable taco topped with sweet Zanahorias prepared three ways (fried, pureed, roasted) and, cleverly, a crunchy Marcona almond salsa macha. Did you ever dip your carrots into a jar of peanut butter? This was like that, but much better than that sounds. The fish taco was a play on that high-end stalwart, miso glazed black cod, though Medina puts his miso into the tortilla itself, and pairs the swimmer with a spear of Chinese eggplant, also from his garden.
Two big meaty plates came next: a Pato y Cerezas taco featuring hunks of duck, quince puree, and cherry sauce that ate like Thanksgiving dinner, though maybe a bit too fruity, like when you overdo the cranberry; and a hefty Carne Asada with a slab of grilled ribeye, a nice strong cheese, charred tomatoes, and roasted peppers. The whole night started off with cobs of baby corn, prepared esquites-style and blanketed with black truffle, and ended with a churro buried under a specially-made salted caramel ice cream (complete with grasshopper dust, a nod to Toalache's famous bug tacos) from Sugar Hill Creamery.
The whole thing costs $65; tequila pairings, via El Tesoro, set you back with an additional $35.
It was all delicious, no question, and I'd love to eat whatever five or six things Medina comes up with next time. But the thing about the omakase format is that it can take a long time to get through dinner. In this case, three-plus hours perched on a backless stool. Granted, my fellow diners who chose the tequila plan seemed to have a much easier time than me with the waiting between tacos (not to mention the increased volume of the room as all conversations turned into shouting contests). So drink up, think of it more as a party with great food rather than a relaxing meal, and you'll have a good time.
Medina's next Taco Omakase will take place on December 9th at La Chula, 137 East 116th Street at the corner of Lexington Avenue. The menu will be different, and the tequila will be by Herradura. You can get more information and make reservations by emailing [email protected] (646-590-3975; lachulanyc.com)