UPPER WEST SIDE — A new neighborhood Mexican restaurant is hoping to entice Upper West Siders out of the cold and into its homey setting with authentic feasts.
David Bank and his partner Vanida Bank are making their first foray into Mexican cuisine with Cocina Economica Mexico at 452 Amsterdam Ave., between 81st and 82nd streets, next door to one of their other ventures, Land Thai Kitchen.
The duo spent the fall converting the narrow space, which formerly housed their farm-to-table restaurant Recipe, into a cozy family-style eatery featuring street snacks, soups, salads, grilled entrees and casseroles, all for under $15.
The restaurant opened in early December after being delayed by Hurricane Sandy.
Bank said he developed a taste for Mexican food over the past seven years while running Land Thai Kitchen, because half the staff there is Mexican and Mexican food is often served during employee meals.
Cocina Economica Mexico's name refers to a type of Mexican establishment that is both a grocery store and a place to order fresh meals. Bank encountered the casual eateries in his travels in the Yucatan during scouting trips for the new restaurant.
"People go to [cocina economicas] for freshness," he said, which is something he said he will instill at his own Cocina Economica. Bank incorporated the look of the cocina economicas at his new restaurant by displaying spices and dried vegetables on the walls as though they were for sale.
Bank said he wanted his sous chef from Land Thai, Pedro Hernandez Perez, who is from Puebla, Mexico, to step into the spotlight as the head chef at Cocina Economica Mexico. Perez's Mexican food was so good, he thought, "I cannot keep this to myself," Bank said.
"Pedro grew up on a farm in Mexico, so he's bringing in a lot of fresh vegetables and meats [to the menu] — it's similar to the Recipe concept," Bank said.
And whereas Recipe was "a little more high end," he said, the new restaurant should be more budget-friendly. "I want customers to come in every day."
Like Recipe, the menu at Cocina Economica Mexico will feature healthy options.
"Our tacos don't use sour cream, because Pedro says in a good taco it doesn't need sour cream — just fresh meat or seafood, fresh onions and cilantro and a good tortilla," Bank said.
To lure customers during the chilly winter months, Bank is importing dishes inspired by Mexico City's mountain climate, where at night the temperature drops substantially. The hearty meals involve a lot of stewing and braising.
"The casserole is our specialty. It's very homey. Pedro loves this and that's a very good example of a winter menu," Bank said.
The drinks menu features innovative cocktails from $7 to $15, like a Jamaican tea with two types of mezcal, agavero, and Jamaican lime.
"We want to introduce different types of liquors to the Upper West Side — people are often stuck to margaritas," Bank said.
He also wants to expand diners' idea of Mexican food. The restaurant staff get weekly shipments of new spices that aren't always available in the U.S. from Mexican family members — increasing the authenticity of the dishes, Bank said.
"They're used to American Mexican — we're doing real Mexican," Bank said.