[All photos by Robert Sietsema]
For three decades Caliente Cab Company has lingered at the prized West Village corner of Bleecker and Seventh Avenue South, outlasting dozens of other restaurants that have come and gone in the immediate vicinity. It certainly must be doing something right, because the place is perpetually mobbed. Affixed to the second story, a six-foot-tall frozen margarita has become a neighborhood landmark. Once bright yellow, it's now colored a sober bronze after a recent renovation and menu revamp. But the glass still seems to tilt and spill, so that diners underneath at the outdoor tables appear in danger of alcoholic inundation.
Caliente — as the sprawling complex is known to its devotees — constitutes the city's foremost margarita mill. Once common in New York, this classic restaurant type highlights giant frozen drinks as its principal lure, with an indifferent Tex-Mex menu of nachos, hard-shell tacos, and sizzling fajitas as an afterthought. I last visited the place years ago, and came to the conclusion it was the city's worst restaurant. Does it still deserve this supreme accolade? This being Shitshow Week, a group of Eater staffers and I paid a visit to find out.
Predictably, rather than sticking with Tex-Mex, the new menu pretends to explore all sorts of regional Mexican fare, with nods to the Yucatan, Monterrey, Puebla, Veracruz, and Cholula — a hot sauce it seems to have mistaken for a municipality. The menu now offers a whopping 64 dishes in 12 categories, many with multiple options. Sections absurdly include Tapas Flights ("more than enough for two or three amigos"), Gimme Salsa!, and Burritos de Mexico. Of course, the burrito is a California phenomenon. The menu also flaunts an international fusion attitude, pointedly incorporating elements that are supposedly Caribbean, Spanish, Japanese, and Cajun.
My dining companions and I arrived just as the sun was sinking low over the stately townhouses of the West Village, and requested a table on the fenced-in patio. Clad head to toe in charcoal gray, the waiter appeared the minute we were seated offering guacamole ($15). Stylishly served in a black volcano-stone molcajete, it was satisfactory (low on onion and cilantro), though tendered with a hilariously small quantity of chips. The waiter popped up every few minutes ostensibly to offer more chips, but really to see if we were ready for another round of drinks.
Those drinks are humongous, brightly colored, served in tall hurricane glasses, and come frozen like a slushy. Suspiciously, the menu doesn't refer to them as margaritas. Rather, they're evasively called "frozen cocktails." Yes they have plenty of alcohol in them. But no, it's probably not tequila. Above the list of spiked slushies ($15 each) is a roster of 33 tequilas; when you order a frozen cocktail, the guy tries to sell you an extra shot or two of tequila, "which you should pour on top," he says encouragingly. We demurred. Clearly, Caliente is a place where getting drunk fast is the whole point, and if you want something that tastes somewhat like a margarita, you'll have to retrofit it with plenty of tequila.
The frozen drinks recall a time, early in childhood, where you were dazzled with artificial colors and artificial flavors, and my cherry slushy possessed all the charm of a bottle of cough syrup. These drinks turn their backs on all modern mixological notions, with flavors guaranteed to make you wince. Among the 18 choices, you'll find passion fruit, melon, pineapple, pomegranate, banana, and grape. Cannily, one in our party ordered tamarind, perhaps realizing there is no such thing as artificial tamarind flavor. Her cocktail was almost drinkable, though like the others, so sweet it made your jaw ache.
Though we knew the main course would involve giant plates of food, we couldn't help ordering the app called Mexicajun shrimp ($10.50), which comes with "bamba" sauce. It turned out to be white, flecked with sketchy particles, and crusted over with a yellowish skin. "These shrimp are mushy," complained one in our party, wrinkling up her nose.
Those same shrimp appeared — lightly grilled rather than sloughing off crust — in the "rain forest ensalada" ($15.95). Whether "rain forest" refers to vast tracts of land in South America, or to the Rainforest Café chain, remains an open question. As the menu breathlessly describes it: "colorful chunks of papaya, pineapple and avocado with grilled shrimp or chicken breast over mesclun greens, red onions and cilantro tossed with our lemon/chipotle-vinaigrette dressing." At Caliente, you'll find the word "chipotle" tossed around with abandon, though it doesn't seem to refer to the fiery smoked jalapeno we're familiar with. A more flavorless biomass than the rain forest salad can hardly be imagined.
The worst dish of the meal had to be the vegetarian enchiladas from the section called Especiales de la Casa. Stuffed with spinach and mushrooms, they arrived sopping with a thin and sickly sauce that dribbled out the ends, bubbling ominously. Nearly its equal in badness were the Sonora Blue Corn Chipotle chicken enchiladas ($16.95), name checking the Sonoran desert. Once again, not sure what the "chipotle" refers to, because there was no smoky heat in the entree, and the advertised blue-corn tortillas resembled a black rubber bath mat. Equally rubbery was the overlaying mantle of cheese, which required lots of hacking to get at the tortillas below.
Pushed off into a corner of the menu was the traditional bedrock of the margarita mill: the combo platters, in which one is asked to select either two or three drawn from a list that contains hard-shell tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, and old-fashioned, small-size burritos. My friends and I went for the first three, stuffed with seasoned ground beef, chicken, and vegetables, respectively. But even here, Caliente took a flyer — the damp ground beef burst from the hard shell taco just as it arrived, making picking it up impossible. Nevertheless, we used pieces of the shell to scoop up sticky wads of ground beef. "Gee, this tastes just like spaghetti sauce," one diner observed as we called for the check and went around the corner to John's Pizzeria to get some real food.
Caliente Cab Co. is still the worst restaurant in town.
A few choice items from the menu:
— Crispy Eggplant Torta: "panko/cilantro crusted fried eggplant cutlets"
—California Shrimp and Crab Rolls: "a tomato tortilla filled with shrimp, swimming
— Alaskan crab [sic], avocado, sliced sushi style and served with wasabi salsa."
— Chicken Poblano: "farm-raised chicken breast sautéed in virgin olive oil and baked to perfection in a creamy poblano salsa and topped with pecorino romano cheese."
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