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$20 Dinner

Esse Throws a Fun Party—But Its Tacos Fall Flat

The best thing at Cosme owner Enrique Olvera's new taqueria is the dessert.

Oyster mushroom taco, $5.45 (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

If nothing else, Esse Taco knows how to turn a crowd into a party. The spanking new taqueria, which the acclaimed chef Enrique Olvera opened last weekend in Williamsburg, brings a loose, spilling-out-onto-the-streets energy to an otherwise dispiriting stretch of Bedford Avenue, a block away from the Equinox/Apple/Whole Foods buzzkill.  

Olvera is best known for his luxe restaurant Pujol in Mexico City—home to, among other things, a $95+ taco omakase—and his luxe restaurant Cosme near the Flatiron. He and his Casamata hospitality group also run the more casual (though also still pretty luxe) spot ATLA, catering to the fit folks of Noho. 

Pick a barrel, any barrel. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

But as Gonzalo Gout, Casamata's Director of DNA and Culture, told Hell Gate, Olvera has long wanted to open a straight-up taco stand. "In Mexico," Gout said, "everyone eats tacos. It's the most democratic food, like pizza in New York." So, rather than go with their original expansion plan and open a second ATLA in Brooklyn, team Casamata finally took the taqueria plunge and gave us Esse.     

 Ribeye steak taco, $5.95; oyster mushroom taco, $5.45 (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

The taqueria sits on the corner of North 5th Street, and enjoys a long frontage along Bedford Avenue which opens up onto the street. The tables are moveable steel barrels, packed close together near the ordering counter inside and on the sidewalk outside. There are no chairs anywhere. You will be sharing your space and, if you're like me, chatting with your neighbors, which creates a nice, free-flowing vibe to the place. 

It feels exciting. The music's cranking. The staff is friendly and efficient amidst the chaos. And if there are no barrels available after you order, you can hang out in the curbside dining area, which the team "built" by lining up a few orange and white plastic barricades. It's a nifty solution that reminded me of that first pandemic summer, when restaurants turned every block into a block party.     

Esse is a lively and welcome addition to the neighborhood. So much so, in fact, that you almost don't care that tacos are merely... OK. They're fine. They're interesting? Maybe I blew it because I didn't see the big crock of "muy picante" salsa at the pickup counter, but there's a serious lack of oomph to almost everything on the menu here. (Full disclosure: I thought the same thing about the food at ATLA.)

(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Corn is the default tortilla at Esse, the fresh masa nixtamalized and pressed by hand daily down in the basement, and they are thick and chewy and do their job well. You can turn any taco into a gringa for an extra buck, which swaps in a flour tortilla and adds chihuahua cheese (and with it, some necessary salt). Next time, that will be my move.

My favorite of the four tacos was the pork loin slathered in pineapple butter, an Olvera trademark from Pujol that brings a bit of zing to the proceedings. Here's where I tell you that the meat at Esse isn't chopped, as is standard taco-making procedure, but instead laid atop the tortilla in a single, thinly sliced slab. It's a deliberate decision, made "to put quality front and center" as the press release says, and it also takes away any of the usual taco gloopiness.  

Chicken "poc chuc" taco, $4.95; the pork loin with pineapple butter taco, $4.95. Note the slabs of meat (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

I honestly don't really remember anything about the ribeye steak taco, or the chicken "poc chuc" one. They weren't bad, necessarily. Olvera is using good meat, and the line cooks cranking these little guys out know what they're doing in the kitchen. They just didn't have any presence. My second favorite taco was the smoky, slippery, oyster mushroom one.     

Skip the wan guacamole (though maybe it'd be better if you remember to spoon in some salsa?), but definitely get dessert, a stellar cornhusk meringue ice cream sundae adapted for the masses from one of Cosme's signature dishes. It's the best thing here by a considerable margin. As a buddy of mine said, "it was like—finally! Something excellent." 

Cornhusk meringue sundae, $6.00. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

You're not going to want to linger at Esse (nor should you...don't you see that long line of people waiting for your barrel?), but you can probably suck down a beverage or two while you wait for your tacos to come out. Margaritas are $13, a michelada will cost you ten bucks, and house-made agua fresca—the hibiscus grapefruit was decent—is $5 a cup.    

Esse Taco is located at 219 Bedford Avenue, at the corner of North 5th Street, and is currently open on Wednesday through Friday from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 11:00 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday.  

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