First Impressions: El Vez

El Vez view from barI imagine many of you have been to El Vez by now, if you could get in—the 190-seat restaurant is mammoth, but since it opened April 25, I’ve been hearing about packed crowds and hour-long waits. Even last Sunday night, when Adam and I had a reservation, the place was jammed, although that could have been due in large part to Cinco de Mayo being the next day.

When North End Grill opened, or maybe it was Blue Smoke, I pondered the challenge of opening a restaurant with any sense of place in a neighborhood with no sense of place. (Battery Park City has many merits! But distinctiveness is not chief among them.) North End Grill went coolly modern, as if to jibe with the architecture. El Vez, in contrast, says to hell with that. The Mexican-restaurant tropes, high and low, are too many to count: lucha libre portraits, bulls’ horns, Dia de los Muertos dioramas, a hacienda-style wooden ceiling, cast-iron chandeliers, bunches of dried chiles, velvet-style Elvis paintings…. My standard line when faced with an overwhelming amount of decor involves a shovel, but this is wheelbarrow territory. Much of it is kitsch—I could’ve done without the liquor-bottle light fixtures—and yet the effect is not remotely cheap. The lighting is perfect, the noise level wasn’t oppressive, and the craftsmanship is impressive. I can’t imagine how much it cost to build this restaurant, from the carvings in the bar, to the individually weathered wooden barstools (that have a welcome bit of swivel), to a men’s room that deserves a photo spread of its own. The mural of the zaftig sunbather pictured below is just one detail from it.

If you know American Mexican food at all, there’s nothing on the menu you won’t recognize, except maybe the tlayudas, which are akin to pizzas. Adam and I shared the classic guacamole, a huitlacoche quesadilla, grilled fish tacos, and sides of fried plantains and rice and beans. The food struck us as better than it needs to be: The chips were good even if the guacamole was on the bland side (you have to amp up the lime and cilantro if you’re working with East Coast avocados, and you can skip the cheese), the fish tacos were excellent, and fried plantains are pretty much unscrewupable, although they hardly need the cheese sauce. But then my stomach sinks whenever I see evidence of a squirt bottle.

The only serious demerit was the margarita. Adam’s first thought was that it tasted like NutraSweet, but then we landed on a more specific reference: Crystal Light. The guys next to us had complained that their pitcher of margaritas was too weak, and I vaguely heard them say something about a “skinny margarita”—that was exactly what mine tasted like, so maybe I got someone else’s by mistake (although there’s no such thing on the menu). As for the heart-healthy application of salt on the rim, we debated whether it was intentional or not. (Note: Do read Doug’s comment on the other cocktails and the deep list of tequilas and mezcals.)

I went back for lunch yesterday (Seis de Mayo), to see if that night was a fluke. I couldn’t work up the nerve to have a margarita, but I did see written on the mirror above the bar that El Vez’s “housemade margarita features 2 oz tequila, 1 oz fresh lime juice, 3/4 oz agave syrup.” So maybe it was the agave and the absence of triple sec (or similar) that made the drink so unappealing? I almost asked the bartender, but I couldn’t think of a gracious way to find out whether it was supposed to evoke Crystal Light.

I tried the shrimp tyaluda, tasty despite the always unnerving combination of seafood and cheese, and the kale salad. The salad is another example of El Vez doing more than it needed to: Far bigger than it looks here, it had a ton of (unbilled) parsley and mint—sending it somewhere almost Middle Eastern—shaved cabbage for color, crumbled peanuts, and just a bit of cotija cheese.

The place was once again very busy, and the service was excellent both visits. Thoughtful touches abound: They’ll text you when your table is ready, kids are given sombreros to wear, and there’s a credit-card reader on the vintage photo booth. When I was served that awful margarita, and before I got it replaced with a Negra Modelo, I wondered aloud whether I’d ever come back. I think I might.

El Vez is at 259 Vesey (between Goldman Alley and North End Ave.), 212-233-2500;

El Vez wallEl Vez mens room muralEl Vez dining roomEl Vez plantainsEl Vez shrimp tlayupaEl Vez view from bar2El Vez bar2El Vez photo boothEl Vez restroom ElvisRecent New Kid on the Block/First Impressions articles:
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  1. I feel pretty much the same about El Vez as you do, except for the bar. The cocktails I have had there have been thoughtfully put together and well mixed. They have a truly impressive list of agave spirits, rivaling even serious agave mixology bars like Mayahuel. They have lots of wonderful tequilas, single village mezcals, and some pretty unusual stuff like sotol and harvest mezcals. The cocktails are not anywhere near Mayahuel level, but I have had some success. I did not have a basic margarita, because it’s not a favorite of mine, so I can’t speak to that. I went immediately for a mezcal and pineapple version of margarita which was quite tasty – smoky and reasonably well balanced. My favorite thing about the cocktail list is the classic cocktails reformulated with an agave spirit as the base spirit. The Pelo de Pero is a nice twist on the Corpse Reviver, and was by far the tastiest and most interesting cocktail I’ve had in the confines of BPC. I look forward to trying their takes on the Vieux Carre and the Hemingway Daiquiri.

    Sorry for the big info dump on this, but I am a cocktail nerd, and BPC has been sorely lacking in this area (the Black Hound tries fairly hard, but doesn’t quite make it). I’m sure there are pitfalls, and there are sops to the masses who only know Chevy’s and the like, but there are some very tasty cocktails on their list, and the agave list is something that demands adventurous exploration. Within the friendly confines of BPC, that’s a big win in my book.

  2. It’s definitely the agave. Every time my wife uses it instead of sugar, I feel like she’s passive aggressively telling me to lose weight.

  3. I largely agree with the assessment here. There was something off about my classic margarita that could have been the agave, but I remember saying to my dining partner that I thought it was lacking “something” that I still can’t put my finger on.

    I am left with a feeling of ambivalence about my experience the other night. Overall, the food was quite good (not great) and fairly expensive in the end. I suppose that’s how El Vez will pay for the expensive (and rather kitchy) decor. The service and attention we received, including and very impassioned explanation of the moles, made us feel very welcomed.

    Will I go back? Probably yes to try the new brunch, but I’m not sure about dinner. I far prefer Blue Smoke and North End Grill for the money.

  4. The Mezcal Pineapple drink is the ticket.

  5. I was there for lunch yesterday too. Since Mexican is not my favorite cuisine I may not be the best judge of what is good or not and I was with work crowd so drinks were not part of the deal but what totally knocked me out was the price. I think it is way overpriced. I would give it another try for drinks and appetizers but I think I will stick with Southwest for lunch.

  6. Erik:

    I live in BPC and have not yet been to El Vez. Thanks for the write up and (as usual) GREAT photos. It makes me feel like i have already been there.

  7. Went for Cinco de Mayo with my wife and 21 month old daughter. No reservation. They were very accommodating. Kale salad was great, as were the grilled fish tacos and grilled corn on the cob. The guac was very very bland. Even though we requested it to be very spicy when we ordered it. This was met with confused looks, and a side oder of diced jalepenos (also strangely very bland). Almost tasted like it was pre made in bulk, so the recipe couldn’t be altered. Lots of talk of hot house made hot sauces, though they didn’t make any that day – strange for cinco de mayo. Decor was great and fun. All in all great (if they can fix the guac), Will definitely go back. My wife already has. Best Mexican in the area!

  8. I agree about the classic margarita and yes it’s the lack of triple sec. The frozen marg is a better bet. Let’s hope they add a Cadillac with high end tequila and Cointreau and lime squeezed right in front of you (I’d pay $20 for that). The food is very good good, especially the duck flautas.

  9. All their drinks are bad ! The michalda taste liked
    I asked a barmaid at the elks lodge to make it and the white sangria tasted like a cucumber accidentally fell in my pinot grigio.

  10. Their margaritas are terrible!!! Both frozen and on the rocks. A marg on the rocks is served with 90% ice cubes. Speaks volumes about the place. For much better margaritas (and food), head a few blocks down to Southwest NY.