Frank Episale is an editor, writer, educator, and theatre artist living and working in Brooklyn. He holds a BFA from New York University, an MA from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and an MPhil from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This is his (infrequently updated) blog. He's pretty google-able, if you'd like to know more.

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Saturday
Feb202010

El Coyote

When El Coyote restaurant opened on Northern Boulevard, there was something of a kerfuffle on the Jackson Heights Life bulletin board over whether there was a place for this kind of mid-scale suburbanite restaurant in a neighborhood that is known, in part, for its taquerias and food carts serving delicious, “authentic” Mexican street food at very low prices.

Because my roommate recently ate their and enjoyed it, because today brought a much-needed beautiful and temperate afternoon, and  because I have a great deal of work to do and am looking for ways to procrastinate, I decided to take myself to lunch at El Coyote and judge for myself. I overspent and overate, ordering drinks and dessert, justifying the expense and the carbs with the idea that I would post my thoughts about the meal on my neglected blog. So here goes.

My first impressions of El Coyote were generally positive. Pleasant décor, straddling elegance and kitsch, clean and well-kept. A fully stocked bar. The first indications of attentive service. Sadly, though, the room was almost empty, carrying the faint but unmistakable scent of desperation, of a business in danger of closing if traffic doesn’t pick up.

My host and waitress was extremely friendly, and didn’t bat an eye when I said “Just me for lunch.” She left me with water, a food menu including lunch specials, and a drink menu, quickly returning with chips and salsa, far more of each than I needed than I needed since I was eating alone (assuming I was going to order food), but they were tasty enough and clearly made this morning, or yesterday at the earliest.

I ordered a “lime boat margarita” ($9), supposedly made with Sauza Gold, Grand Marnier, Cointreau, and fresh squeezed lime juice. The “boat” was half of a lime, presumably having been squeezed into the drink, that had a little pool of extra tequila floating in the dent formed by the squeezer. Also, a tiny paper Mexican flag (one of the kitschy touches). The drink was bit sweet for my taste, too heavy on the Grand Marnier and too light on the lime, but I tend to like my cocktails with more acid and less sugar so this was no big surprise.

I ordered from the lunch menu, choosing enchiladas with mole poblano ($6.95), which would come with soup as well as a choice of salad or rice and beans (I asked for the salad).

 

The soup came first. Celery, carrot, dark chicken meat in a light broth. As with what would follow, the good was that the ingredients were fresh; the bad was that they were under seasoned. It could arguably have used one more skim of oil off the top, too, but that’s open to debate.

The one ding against the otherwise excellent service was that I was brought rice and beans despite having asked for the salad. I should have said something, but I’m a little weird about that, and almost never send anything back. So rice and beans it was.

Neither mole nor black beans photograph all that well, particularly in low light, but both continued the theme of competently cooked, slightly under-seasoned fare made from admirably fresh ingredients. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t have the layers of flavor, the juxtaposition of strength and subtlety, the balance of bite and sweetness and heat that inspires pilgrimages to Oaxaca and Puebla.

By the time I’d eaten most of this, I was full, but I thought I should at least take a look at the dessert menu. Having taken a look it seemed only fair to have a bite of something and post a picture and a few words… 

I opted for the “bananitas,” sweet bananas flambéed in sugar and brandy and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream ($4.50). I wasn't quick enough with my phone to catch the flames, but they were a fun touch. The bananas were firm and sweet, with just enough caramelization from the flambé. I finished with a smoky Cabo Wabo Añejo, which was served with a salted Virgin Mary shot and a wedge of lime.

While I have to agree with some of El Coyote’s critics that the food doesn’t stand up to some of the neighborhood's divier, grungier options, attentive service and relaxing atmosphere are sometimes worth considering. Your date or your Mom isn’t always in the mood for an “authentically” delicious adventure. Sometimes a smiling waitress, a clean tablecloth and a flickering candle are called for, and Jackson Heights, for all its foodie splendor, has limited options on that front. And the $6.95 lunch menu is a pretty great value.

That said, the most memorable moments of the meal by far were the bananitas and the Cabo Wabo. Everything else cried out for a little more salt, a little more acid, and a little more heat. I’ll be back to El Coyote at some point, I’m sure, and will try to stop by during dinner or happy hour to sample some things I might have missed. In many ways, this restaurant is a valuable addition to our community, but I don’t know how long they’ll last if they don’t realize that this is the wrong neighborhood in which to hold back on the spice.

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