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Take a tiny storefront and turn it into
a 20-seat restaurant. Serve dishes based on one simple idea.
(In this case, the Mexican sandwich.) Add a few side dishes,
and voila - a great concept is born.
Such is the case of the Mexican Sandwich Company in Park Slope, whose specialty is the quesadilla. While the sandwich of flour tortillas stuffed with meat, cheese, beans, or other fillings, folded in half and then grilled is nothing new, chef Tim Peterson’s triple-layer version puts a spin on the traditional Mexican treat.
Peterson first served his quesadillas to the clientele of Happy Endings, a bar in SoHo. (Peterson also served as sous chef at Wyanoka, an "American Eclectic" restaurant in Manhattan.) The sandwich was so popular with the bar’s patrons that Peterson - with Peter Kane and Chris Santos - expanded on the idea.
The Mexican Sandwich Company opened on Fifth Avenue in March. The cafe is small and casual with a tiled floor and wooden tables. A glowing border of backlit, amber, glass tiles circles the room.
Eleven "signature quesadillas," either in a six-inch or 12-inch size, are the eatery’s main draw. The six-inch version will satisfy hearty eaters. If a diner isn’t inspired by wild plum and brie cheese with smoked bacon and lavender-chili honey, or wild mushroom with goat cheese and lamb’s lettuce quesadillas, they can mix-and-match their own fillings.
Excellent soups and side dishes round out the menu.
Peterson uses familiar Mexican ingredients such as black beans, jalapeno and chipotle peppers, and tomatillos (a tomato-like fruit with a mild, lemony flavor), then spins off vibrant creations that bear little resemblance to the wan grub passed off as Mexican cuisine in some other establishments.
To start, there are four carefully prepared salsas. The spicy mango is the best. Peterson dices the fruit fine then mixes it with crisp, red onions and red peppers, ancho chiles and jalapenos. The mango’s sweet, cinnamon flavor plays off the crunchy onions, while the heat from the peppers provides a pleasing punch. Piled atop warm cumin-dusted corn chips, it’s impossible to stop eating. Buttery, ripe avocados were lightened with lemon and freshened with chopped cilantro in a smooth guacamole. Traditional salsa fresco and the chipotle-lime salsa were fresh, with the distinct flavors of ripe tomatoes, chiles and cilantro.
If Peterson is serving white bean soup, order it. The beans are pureed with roasted squash, mushrooms and corn. The roasting brings out the earthy taste of the vegetables, and the puree has a luxurious mouth feel - like heavy cream.
All but one of the sandwiches I tried (the one blooper was created by my dining partner who should leave flavor blending to the professionals) were beautifully balanced. Some were subtle, and some had a real kick.
The chipotle shrimp quesadilla featured tender shrimp, roasted red and yellow peppers, fresh spinach and pieces of tomatillo, layered in spinach tortillas and splashed with a spicy poblano cream. The sweetness of the shrimp was enhanced by the smoky poblano. Roasted corn added chewiness, while feta cheese lent just the right touch of salt.
On its own, duck confit (meat cooked and stored in its own fat) with cheddar, in the barbecued duck sandwich, would be cloyingly rich. Peterson cuts the pairing with spicy scallions, mango salsa and a drizzle of a tart, blood orange sauce.
A cold glass of house-made, raspberry limeade or green apple and mint juice pair well with the sandwich. They’re made with very little sugar so they lean toward the sour, not sweet. Refills of the beverages are free.
Later this month, when the cafe begins serving beer and wine, try the chalada, Mexican beer with lime juice served in a sea salt-rimmed glass.
When beans and cheese are enough of a good thing, customize a flour tortilla with Monterey jack cheese, black beans and fresh cilantro puree for an agreeable meal.
My one criticism is Peterson’s penchant for sprinkling chili powder over everything. Too much chili powder splashed around the plate and over a wilted side of mixed greens served only to distract from the main event.
Il Laboratorio del Gelato, a Lower East Side purveyor of fine, unusually flavored gelatos, provides the cafe’s desserts. A pie filled with cinnamon-laced chocolate, marshmallow and a bit of ancho chile powder will be added shortly.
A sandwich is a fine meal to eat any time. The Mexican Sandwich Company turns modest fare into a small feast. It’s a simple idea, but a good one.
The Mexican Sandwich Company (322 Fifth Ave. between Second and Third streets in Park Slope) accepts Visa and MasterCard. Quesadillas, $6.50-$13.50. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner seven days a week. Delivery available in Park Slope during restaurant hours, and other neighborhoods outside of peak dining times. No reservations. For information, call (718) 369-2058.
©2003 Community Newspaper Group
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