You know that one restaurant that’s just right because of that one special thing? Yeah, us too. That’s why we’re introducing our newest franchise: Letter of Recommendation. These are tributes, from our staff and contributors, to spots that offer something unique — restaurants we can’t live without. They may not be the most buzzy, but they provide something essential.
In this edition: An argument for why Jajaja Mexicana on the Lower East Side is the perfect place to start a night — or end it.
Gone are the days when going out meant leaving my house at 11 p.m., willfully not eating dinner so that I could “save money by drinking less” later. To be frank, I’m not mourning them; I’m relieved they ran their course.
Now, things come more naturally. I have a dear friend who refers to the concept I want to present to you as “leaning” — as in, you lean into the night rather than plan it out in advance. Maybe we’ll go dancing, maybe we’ll call it a night after dinner and drinks. There’s no telling, only leaning. It’s a no-pressure situation for a group who deals with pressure all the time during the day, what with work, boyfriends, roommates, and any other number of stresses. You know, like every other New Yorker.
Jajaja may not be the most mom-and-pop, the least bro-y, or the most inventive choice for dinner, but it plays a very specific and wonderful purpose in my life at this current stage of going out.
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It’s not too big inside; there are maybe 12 tables and six bar seats. The music is usually of the reggaeton variety (a huge plus where my friends are concerned). You won’t look out of place if you’re in sweats or in the classic “going out” top of my generation, and the staff is hot in a way that makes you feel hotter by association instead of being intimidating. In other words, it’s a great spot to go for dinner when you’re not sure where the night will take you.
It’s fun enough inside Jajaja, with the low lights and loud music, to feel like an event without the added pressure of an actual event. It has a rare and elusive ability to work as a sort of mood ring for the night to come.
Just how much are we dancing in our seats? How many more drinks do we feel like having, even after a pile of vegan cheese? Sometimes, the environment pushes us into more, sometimes it’s just enough before we end up in bed by 10:30 p.m. We’re at the age where really, either is possible.
The neighborhood definitely doesn’t hurt Jajaja’s efforts. The Lower East side still has plenty of great spots that don’t feel too young, too expensive, or too touristy, so walking is no problem. After all, who really wants to step into the fluorescents of the subway station after being in such low lighting and just beginning to feel oneself? You could lean into Mr. Fongs or Peachy’s nearby in Chinatown, or stop by Le Dive or Attaboy for afters. Going home? The F train is quite literally at their front door.
Jajaja also vegan, but in a way that allows that to be said as an afterthought rather than the main thing. Another friend of mine who’s a fan of leaning when it comes to nightlife is famously picky (we’re talking chicken tenders and fries, buttered noodles kind of picky) and they eat here with no problems whatsoever.
When crafting the perfect meal for our group, we begin with the chips and guac and the chips and queso. Followed by the nachos, the enchiladas mole, and the taco tazon bowl salad, plus a side of street corn. Pineapple y mezcals all around, please. If it’s a dessert night (remember, we’re leaning), we’ll go for the churros.
In the end, what do we really want from a night out? For me, it’s not about being seen in the coolest place, or spending the most money on the craftiest cocktails, it’s about seeing, laughing with, and cherishing my friends, whether they’re ready to stay out until four or they’re done by 8:30 p.m.
Jajaja Mexicana on the Lower East Side is open daily for lunch and dinner.