Eating Mexican in New York City after having eaten Mexican in Mexico can be tricky. Hell, eating Mexican in NYC after having eaten Mexican in California can be tricky. For all of the Mexicans New York City boasts, over 306,000, the city’s not known for extraordinary Mexican food. Those greasy “Tex-Mex/Chinese” holes-in-the-wall still baffle me. And when it’s not crap, what we’ve bred here is some hybrid Mexican cuisine, where traditional food competes with the instant gratification-obsessed metropolitan culture of this city and fine food from across the globe. And if it’s done well, this hybrid is alright by me.
Vamos! is settled into an off-the-road mini-strip at 21st street and 1st avenue in Manhattan. For no reason I can cite, this neighborhood isn’t one I often find myself in. The eastern-most avenues of Manhattan aren’t exactly easy to get to–usually requiring at least a 10 minute walk from the train.
I ventured out to Vamos! on a freezing cold December night, Mexican partner in tow, and sat down for one of the more satisfying Mexican meals I’ve had in New York City–really one of my favorites. Having checked out the menu online before going to the restaurant, it’s decor took us off guard. Entrees started around $17, which isn’t anything to write home about in this city, but in my Ohio hometown, the price-tag alone would be enough to categorize a restaurant as ‘too swank for you’. So maybe it was the mid-western in me taking the reigns, but I was (pleasantly )surprised to find that Vamos! doesn’t have a white tablecloth/fancy waiter thing going on because, sincerely, does NYC really need yet another faux-swank yuppie destination restaurant?
Paper patterns are strung across the large space, which is especially large for this city. A bar occupies the room’s front space while the open kitchen stretches long against a wall, exposing the chefs at work to diners. Our table was smallish and intimate, great for a date, but other tables were long and wide, well-suited for families and large parties. Somehow, effortlessly, Vamos! juxtaposes a romantic and intimate dining experience against a relaxed, loungey setting all while seeming to be a perfect happy hour spot for Gramercy office-goers.
We over-indulged with the food, but it’s nothing I regret. Beginning with an array of appetizers, from mouth-watering Mexican meatballs to absolutely perfect guacamole, we downed each bite with our respective margaritas, (one cilantro and one lemon basil–there’s an incredible list with a great variety). When our entrees showed up, we already knew we’d love them based on the success of the appetizers and skillful presentation of what we were about to devour. “The steak is so tender I could cut it with my butter knife…and I DID” snorted my dining companion. The pineapple-topped salmon was buttery, fruity–always a winning combination for me. Slices of corn (shaved right off the cob) and other veggies surrounded a hearty chicken breast for our third entree and by the time we took in all we could stomach, dessert was completely out of question. I think that’s the surest way to know you had a good meal–through your craving, or lack thereof, for dessert. And really, I have been trying to avoid this pun for the hour I have been sitting in this coffee shop writing, but…Vamos!
By: Elizabeth Seward, Photos By: Ben Britz