New York used to be a one-mole town, and that was mole poblano. A chocolate-colored, bittersweet agglomeration of two dozen or so ingredients, it comes, like most of the city’s Mexican immigrants, from the state of Puebla.
Typically simmered with chicken, mole poblano was a staple of takeout joints and lunch counters and restaurants before anyone took Mexican food in New York seriously. All the other moles — Oaxaca’s mole verde, say, which gets its green color from pumpkin seeds, tomatillos and fresh herbs — were about as rare as a mandarin duck in Central Park. In recent years, as these once-exotic species have become regular features of the menus at Cosme, Empellón, Claro and other restaurants, mole poblano has become something like the pigeon of Mexican sauces, too common and familiar to be worth noticing.
If you share this low view of mole poblano, you owe it to yourself to have the one at Casa Enrique. The chef, Cosme Aguilar, calls it mole de Piaxtla, after the Pueblan town where his father grew up, and as a reminder that there is not just one mole poblano but many. Some have apple in addition to raisins. Some are thickened with animal crackers. Mr. Aguilar remembers that in his childhood home, plantains were allowed to hang until they were black before they could be pounded into mole.
Maybe this explains the particular sweetness of Casa Enrique’s version, which is not the candy-bar sweetness of some. It’s deep and complicated. The character of this mole de Piaxtla unfurls as you eat, whether the sauce has been soaked into enchiladas filled with chicken or simply pooled on a plate over and under a quartered chicken and yellow rice cooked with peas.
At Casa Enrique, the margarita wears many masks.CreditEvan Sung for The New York Times
Mr. Aguilar has been frying, blending and stirring mole de Piaxtla since Casa Enrique opened in 2012, just off Vernon Boulevard, in Long Island City, Queens. In fact, he has barely changed his menu since our Hungry City critic, Ligaya Mishan, reviewed it the next year. Mr. Aguilar says he is emulating the restaurants he likes best in Mexico, ones whose kitchens make the same dishes year in and year out.
Whether despite this or because of it, the restaurant seems to have improved in subtle ways. Acoustic panels tacked to the ceiling make conversation easier. Servers, always welcoming, have become experts at anticipating the meal’s ebb and flow. They’ll step in just when you’re ready for a fresh drink, maybe a margarita with some tamarind this time to offset the raw-sugar syrup. They’ll gauge the precise moment when you’re ready to have dinner plates cleared to make room for dessert.
Or they’ll break away from your table just long enough to join in a full-throated singing of “Happy Birthday” around a slice of tres leches cake with a candle stuck in it on the other side of the room. This may happen three or four times a night, probably not because Casa Enrique looks particularly festive — from floor to ceiling, it’s done almost entirely in white — but, I’d guess, because regulars know it regularly outperforms any number of other restaurants that might seem to be more special on the surface but aren’t, really. Also, the tres leches cake, if not as soggy with condensed milk as it could be, is still pretty good, though I think the flan is almost mandatory, and it, too, is a perfectly credible birthday-candle holder.
Although the guacamole is freshly mashed and pleasingly minimalist, I tend to skip it as long as the people I’m with don’t mind. Instead I’ll head straight for the two-bite sopecitos topped with refried beans and loose chorizo, or the albondigas in cumin-laced chipotle sauce, each of the three meatballs stuffed with hard-cooked eggs.
The best Mexican seafood dishes often come from restaurants that specialize in them. Mr. Aguilar, though, seems equally at home with fish and meat. The market fish offered as a main course — lately a black sea bass — has always been seared to a crisp on the skin side. Still, in all these years I’ve never been convinced that the corn under it compares to the best street-corner esquites, or that it and the fish really add up to a whole dish.
The seafood appetizers, on the other hand, are some of my favorite things at Casa Enrique: the delicately fried oysters sitting in a mayonnaise that gets its tangerine color from ground chiles; the ceviche, freshly tossed with lime and herbs; the crab tostadas, loaded with a thin slice or two of Serrano chile, chopped tomato, leaves of cilantro, smooth avocado salsa and a spoonful of crab meat, pure and clean; and the shrimp cocktail, which gets its roundness and slight richness, I think, from orange soda, just the way you’d hope.
Mr. Aguilar is not one of those chefs who set up masa factories in their basements. Casa Enrique’s corn tortillas do not have the pretty floral aromas of Cosme’s, or the sweet, focused corn flavor you taste in Claro’s. But they are better than you’d find almost anywhere else in New York. They give a boost to the tacos, made with braised tongue or brisket; crumbled chorizo; or fried, battered fish, and they are especially delicious soaked in salsa verde and wrapped around roasted poblanos in cream to make enchiladas Doña Blanca.
And while Cosme’s more modern approach has soaked up more media attention, I’ve encountered more bloops and wobbles eating there than I have exploring the far more traditional menu at Casa Enrique. It isn’t necessarily the more interesting restaurant, but it’s the one where I’m more confident that if I went there tonight, everything would taste exactly the way it was supposed to.
The pozole will be dark and intense, though not especially spicy, with tender strands of pork in the broth and all the usual mix-ins waiting on the side. The pork ribs will be slowly braised, in the style of Chiapas, in a thick cooked salsa built on a foundation of guajillo chiles. These ribs are not to be confused with the baby back ribs, cooked in an even thicker, creamier pipian rojo, that sometimes turn up as a daily special.
Best of all, perhaps, will be the chamorro de borrego, or lamb shank stewed with chickpeas; it will be very tender and very flavorful in its rough sauce of pulla chiles with crushed guaje seeds.
The name of that sauce is huaxmole, or sometimes guaxmole, or even mole de guaje. Yes, it’s a mole, and one that rarely flies as far north as New York City. At Casa Enrique, it has found a permanent perch.