When Cosme Aguilar was a boy growing up in the mountainous, warm Mexican city of Cintalapa, Chiapas — before he immigrated to the United States and opened a Mexican restaurant that would earn a Michelin star — he used to help his family make barbacoa on Sundays.
He remembers the visceral aspects of it: the flies. The blood. The butchering and cleaning. How each of his five siblings participated and all worked together. The next morning, under his mother’s careful tending, the barbacoa would transform inside the clay oven on the patio, from a pile of sinew into a rich, smoky meat that fell off the bone.
The chef’s mother died when he was seven. His homage to her, and his family, lives on at Casa Enrique, Aguilar’s Long Island City restaurant that celebrated its 10th year in business this year. Casa Enrique was the first Mexican restaurant in New York to be awarded a Michelin star in 2015. Even though the upscale Mexican dining scene in the city has expanded considerably since, in many ways, it still feels like there’s not many places like Casa Enrique.
As a Mexican cookbook author, I’ve experienced how hard it is to cook Mexican food this far from the border and to have it taste like it does in Mexico. Ingredients can have the same name as they do in Mexico, yet they don’t taste the same. It’s easy to let the food shout — to allow the chiles, or the acidity from tomatoes or tomatillos overpower everything else. Aguilar’s food doesn’t do that. There’s a softness to it. Eating Casa Enrique’s albondigas al chipotle, a recipe Aguilar’s mother used to make, feels in some ways like staring at a pretty rock and seeing every simple layer clearly. There’s a lightness present that sweeps over you like a breeze.
The restaurant’s menu has tacos. (No Mexican eatery in New York City that I know of, yet, has been bold enough to remove them entirely.) But the real soul of Casa Enrique comes in the mains served with beans and rice — the cochinito chiapaneco, a set of roasted pork ribs painted with a tangy brick-red adobo, or the glossy, dark mole de piaxtla that arrives draped over chicken legs, whispering of sweetness and heat.
“When we opened Casa Enrique, I wanted to make something that felt like we were eating in Mexico, with my family and friends,” Aguilar says. “There’s still a lot of people who come here and think we have nachos and those kinds of things. But when they eat the real thing, they’re like, ‘Oh, this is not even close to the other thing we were eating.’”
Chef J.C. Landazuri, who now works as an executive chef at the Westchester Country Club, met Aguilar when they were both working as chefs in the city in 2005. Landazuri said he still remembers trying, and loving, his friend’s mole. But what he mostly recalls is how consistent Aguilar’s cooking was.
“Cooking is good, it’s simple, but to have consistency and cook the thing over and over, and always have it be the same, that’s the hard part,” Landazuri says. “Everything can change — the guy that made it, the product you order is not the same two days later. But you have to find a balance. That’s where the art of being a good chef comes in.”
A Closer Look at Casa Enrique
Aguilar almost didn’t become a chef. He spent his early years working as an electromechanic in Mexico, fixing car parts that required electricity such as alternators and electric windows. He had opened his own auto parts shop before he started to think about going north to the United States, just to make enough money to keep his store open.
“The way they told me in Mexico was, ‘In six months, you make 10 thousand dollars easily’,” Aguilar says. “So I was like, OK, I’ll go there for six months; I’ll make 10 thousand dollars and go back.”
He got a job as a porter at Le Solex in Manhattan, a French restaurant where his brother Luis worked. He cleaned the kitchen and the bathrooms until Le Solex’s chef noticed, while Aguilar was helping prep food, that the young porter had talent.
“He told me I was very good at what I was doing and said ‘From now on, you belong in the kitchen,’” Aguilar says. “I didn’t want to be — in my mind I was going back to Mexico. I didn’t want to be a cook. I started cooking and I fell in love with it, and that’s why I stayed.”
Over the years, Aguilar worked at several restaurants in New York City, including French ones where sometimes cooks would razz him about how terrible Mexican food was. Eventually he decided to open Casa Enrique with his brother Luis and a third partner, Winston Kulok.
In those early days before the restaurant opened, Aguilar fretted over whether he could capture the complexity of his family recipes, says his sister, Elfega Adriana Aguilar Marín. None of the family dishes had ever traveled outside of Mexico. Their mother hadn’t written anything down. The family recipes basically lived in Aguilar Marín’s head. As the eldest daughter, she helped take care of the children and cook after their mother died.
Aguilar Marín dictated the recipes over the phone to her brother and asked her aunts and grandmothers for any details she was unsure about. The result, when she came to New York and tried the dishes for the first time, was a one-to-one replication, she says. Her brother’s food tasted just like her mother’s. It wasn’t as easy as just following her instructions, she says — because of the difference in ingredients in each side of the border, her brother had to rely on different combinations to pinpoint the taste he wanted.
As the recognized family cook for so many years (she was making mole when I called her), Aguilar Marín says her brother has now surpassed her.
“I serve things in a homestyle way, like you’re at home,” she says. “He makes them like art. It’s an art for him, to cook. He puts his magic on it, that he learned working in restaurants.”
Aguilar, for his part, says he’s finally ready to expand. He plans to open a new restaurant in Manhattan, but he’s skittish on providing details just yet. He takes one day off a week at Casa Enrique, on Sundays, and has allowed himself more space to not constantly be in the kitchen, after so many years of grueling work. He continues to be very proud of Casa Enrique’s Michelin star. He uses the word realizado, which in English means fulfilled, when he reflects on what the achievement means to him.
“It’s like when you want something, you work for it, and you get it,” Aguilar says. “I never wanted to be famous. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be in between. It’s like people who run a marathon and they think they can’t get there, and they get there.”
Casa Enrique is open daily, offering brunch service on weekends and dinner service Mondays through Saturdays.
Lesley Téllez is a writer in New York City and the author of Eat Mexico: Recipes from Mexico City’s Streets, Markets and Fondas. Follow her on Instagram or through her newsletter. Follow Resy, too.