Los Cuernos

My first review on this blog was of Taqueria, whose owners opened up Los Cuernos in Newport earlier this year.  For those of you justifiably uninclined to go through my previous writings, here’s a quick summary of how it went:

  • There’s some good stuff to eat, especially the chorizo quesadilla, carnitas tacos, and soup.
  • There’s a ton of unnecessary and condescending pretext for why they don’t have certain things
  • You can find better options at other places, all of which will not make you feel like an idiot when asking for onions.

It’s important to establish a baseline here because Los Cuernos is essentially the Times Square version of Taqueria.  It bigger,flashier, more expensive and generally not a good time.

A good Mexican restaurant is usually deeply satisfying.  The food is good, it comes out fast, the service is great and its usually reasonably priced.  There’s usually a shitty little bar attached that’s rifling out freezing cold beer and playing soccer on a comically small TV.  It’s the place you always go to when you cant think of what to eat.  It’s what you crave when you’re hungry.  It what everyone can agree upon.

Los Cuernos is attempting to create their gilded version of a modern Mexican cantina, but in a very serious way.  In their eyes, the stereotypical Americanized Mexican cantina is a caricature of a food culture they deeply care about, and to an extent they’re right.  There’s usually more non-Mexicans eating at these places than Mexicans, the menu bloated with not traditional cheese filled items and the ambiance is so over the top that you wonder if you’re in immersive theater.

So what do you do to address that problem?  Do you get away from the cartoon-ish ambiance?  Do you elevate your dishes to highlight the core of what you’re so passionate about?  Do you educate your diners?  You could do that.  You could also create a menu so cynical and opportunistic that it might cause Ayn Rand’s zombified corpse to claw through her casket and six feet of dirt to show up on Washington Blvd and hand-write each menu.

So what’s on the menu?  Its basically Taqueria PRO.  You can get virtually everything on Taqueria’s menu, plus some a few new unremarkable entrees.  I went into this dinner totally blind and was surprised at the fidelity to the Taqueria menu.  This could be a value to you if you are tired of the lines at the Grove St. location and want a taco, but there was also a line here and unfortunately some of the items are subpar in comparison.

Bad news, the pozole, one of the underrated items at Taqueria was impossibly bland, essentially warm water with a thick slick of chili oil as a topper. Good news, the tacos, guac, margs, and enchilada – all just as good as Taqueria.

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The one dish that I caught my eye was the Bistec a la tampiquena, basically a steak with some rice, beans, grilled onions and nopales.  The nopales were the star of the dish here, bringing brightness and acidity to the dish, but the steak itself was not great.  For $22 you can’t really set your expectations high, so this one is on me – I should know better.

Side rant:

Unless you’re in Texas, don’t get a steak from a Mexican place.  What you’re usually getting is a cheap cut of beef that has been butterflied (hence, palomilla) so its thinner and less tough, then marinated in spices and lime juice to make it more flavorful and presumably tender.  After this its cooked to medium-magma and placed in front of you to consume as a dare.

Side side rant:

There is a common misconception that acids, like lime juice, will make meat more tender in a marinade.  This is not true.  Acids take the tight coils of protein and break them down into individual strands, which would make meat tender if the process stopped right there.  A short time later, the new gooey strands of begin to tighten and push water out of the meat resulting in super tough meat.  So, if you’re marinating meat in acid, keep it to under an hour.

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The most notable departure from Taqueria is the physical space Los Cuernos inhabits. Its huuuuuuge. Like Portuguese steakhouse massive.  There’s a sizeable outdoor area, a huge bar, two dining rooms, and a second floor to accommodate even more people.

The aesthetics of this place are just weird. I can picture whoever designed this being quoted as saying “we just wanted the restaurant to be a creative union between our own personal style and traditional Mexican”.  There’s a lot of pop art and Mexican folk art.  The music oscillates between mariachi and 80’s new wave or hair metal. We get it. It’s all a bit too on the nose. There’s a mish mosh of patterns and styles in a way that is both lazy and meticulous, like the grand multi-tiered iron chandeliers and damask wallpaper against the Florida retirement rec room tiled floors

As someone who often writes a lot of words they don’t agree with, I’ve experienced the tough grapple of sunk cost fallacy, and it feels like that’s what happened here.  They started with the goal of making it cool and chic, then realized they shellacked all of abuela’s trinkets on the wall but it was too late.  Congrats, you created Mexican Applebee’s.

Also, for owners that have such a boner for rebelling against strawberry-kiwi margaritas, pillow sized burritos, and sizzling fajitas, they certainly don’t mind going over the top with a 30 ft projector screening Cocktail ad infinitum.

Thankfully you won’t find the same aggressive level indifference at Los Cuernos that you find at Taqueria, but its still present. The same gruff, churn and burn style that’s at work at “hole in the wall” Taqueria is present here. However, there is still clearly no value put on providing a good dining experience. Your experience here will be perfunctory, purely transactional, and in no way justifies the price point.

During our meal we discussed “Newport prices” and how you can’t really blame a place for charging more in this area.  I get that to an extent.  The restaurant needs to charge more to pay their rent, just like every restaurant does.  But I’m pretty sure they must pay their hefty rent bill in the East Village or on Grove St too, where you can find a nearly identical menu for sometimes nearly 70% cheaper.

 

Item Taqueria Los Cuernos Newport Mark-Up
Tacos 3.25 4 23%
Chilaquiles 8.95 15 68%
Pozole 7 10 43%
Chorizo Quesadilla 5.95 10 68%
Flautas 6 9 50%
Tamales 3.5 5 43%
Tostadas 6.5 9 38%
Tortilla Soup 7.5 10 33%
Enchiladas 10.95 15 37%
Bistec Encebollada 12.95 18 39%
Cecina 12.95 18 39%
Guacamole 7 10 43%

Los Cuernos belongs in Time Square, or the Orlando Airport, or China. A few paragraphs ago I had that line about Ayn Rand and this restaurant being cynical and opportunistic.  You thought I was being hyperbolic, right?  Fuck you. Nothing about this place justifies the price point, not even the blissful corporate utopia of…Newport.

We are at peak taco.  The list of uninspired pseudo-Mexican fare in Jersey City grows by the day.  You have a lot of options, but this shouldn’t be one of them.  In a Shamalayan esque twist, I’m not actually recommending you go to Mi Mariacha or Viva or a taco truck instead of Los Cuernos.  I’m recommending you go to Taqueria and get the same damn thing for a lot less money.

Anywhere but Gringos.

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