So, we are pretty much obsessed with Tijuana Picnic, the new bi-level, "elevated Mexican" restaurant located in Manhattan's lower east side neighborhood. Conceived by Jon Neidich and Jean-Marc Houmard (managing partners of Acme), together with Huy Chi Le (of Indochine), designer Robert McKinley, and bartending veteran Jim Kearns (currently of The Happiest Hour and formerly of the NoMad Hotel and Mayahuel), this might just be our favorite opening in a while. Not only did we score their secret duck and foie gras empanada recipe, but we got owner Jean-Marc Houmard to answer a few of our burning foodie questions — check out his answers below.
How would you describe Tijuana Picnic's food philosophy?
We wanted the food to be casual, unpretentious and fun, but of high-quality at the same time. We use organic chicken and beef from Pat La Frieda, for example, which much more high end restaurants also use. The menu is mostly comprised of small dishes that are fun to pass around the table, which creates a festive approach to dining.
What's your favorite dish on the menu?
I love many dishes, but I think the coconut milk-marinated pork chop with cilantro and lemongrass may be my favorite..
Name 3 ingredients you could never live without:
I love a smoky flavor, so anything smoky has a place in my cabinet: chipotle, smoked paprika, Mezcal. I would add olive oil, garlic and Maldon salt to that, and a squeeze of lemon.
Dream Latina to cook for:
If she were still alive: Chavela Vargas. In the living group, I'd go for the opposite image of a Latina that Sofia Vergara and Sonia Sottomayor represent and have them eat at the same table!
Tijuana Picnic is all about casual Mexican fare, reimagined... how did you arrive at this concept?
The menu that Chef Alex Lopez created is based on the traditional dishes he ate while growing up in Mexico City and, as he spent a good part of his culinary life working in Asian restaurants in New York, on non-traditional flavors from South East Asia. That said, the dishes are really Mexican-based and we don't consider our food to be a fusion; the chef just takes a few liberties with some flavor profiles that may surprise some strict traditionalists.
The duck and foie gras empanadas are so good — what's the trick to making the perfect empanada?
It's really all about the dough. Chef Alex thinks that the best dough comes from mixing half regular flour and half corn flour. The result is a firm, but light, dough that is key to a good empanada (see recipe below). As for the salsa that goes with it, Alex combined a traditional ingredient, tomatillo, with a non-traditional one: cumin. This complements the five spices that are used to confit the duck.
As for the cocktails served at Tijuana Picnic, Lynnette Marrero weighed in on what makes them so damn delicious...
The cocktail menu features many Mezcal-based drinks — what are the best ones to try if you're new to Mexcal?
Mezcal is so versatile, you need to identify what style of mezcal you like: Fruity, vegetal, grassy. The most important thing to know is if you like more smokey mezcal or not. Some very well made mezcals tend to tone down the smoke some amplify it.
Must-haves for any good bar cart?
A range of bitters is essential to adding your own flair to classic cocktails. I personally like to have a range of vermouths as well or use sherry in place of vermouth in my favorite cocktails for a spanish twist!
Duck and Foie Gras Empanada Recipe
For the Filling:
- 2 lbs shredded duck legs
- 1 lb Foie Gras (cubes, butter, or some times you can find Foie Gras nuggets)
- 4 oz. Brandy or cognac
- 2 scallions, sliced
- 2 TBSP 5 spice powder
- 1 TBSP Kosher salt
- Orange peels
- Star Anise
For the Dough:
- 2 cups AP flour
- 2 cups Maseca (corn flour)
- 1 TBSP oil
- 1 TBSP Kosher salt
For the Sauce:
- Whole tomatillos
- Salt to taste
To confit the duck legs:
- Cure the legs for 12 hours with a mix of salt and sugar rubbed on the legs.
- To confit them, cover the legs with fat (ideally duck fat but other oils could work), orange peels, star anise, cumin, and black pepper. Put in the oven at 350 degrees for 3 hours.
- When done, remove the legs and shred the duck meat.
- Chop the duck meat, add two tablespoons of cognac, chopped scallions, five spice to taste, and some raw Foie Gras. Mix well and reserve.
- To make the dough: mix half regular flour and half corn flour with 2 tablespoons oil, salt, and add water until the consistency is soft enough to roll.
- Roll the dough and cut circles; fill them with the duck mixture and fold the dough disks into half moons.
- Deep fry until golden brown
For the tomatillo salsa:
Put a bunch of whole tomatillos under the broiler until the skin is blackened. Crush the blackened tomatillos and add some ground cumin and salt to taste.
Visit tijuana-picnic.com to make a reservation the next time you're in New York City.