Anyone who knows me and my dining out habits knows that once I discover a restaurant I love, I’m hooked and go again and again- that could mean twice a week or more sometimes or weekly straight for a year when I’m in town.
The latest name to join my rotation of spots is Casa Carmen, a Mexican restaurant with two locations in the city, one in Tribeca that’s more than a year old and another in Flatiron that officially opened this fall.
Casa Carmen is fantastic and genuinely authentic that it’s- in my opinion, at least, based on my numerous trips to Mexico and decades of enjoying the food- reshaping the meaning of Mexican cuisine in New York.
Casa Carmen’s backstory starts in Mexico City in 1972 when the acclaimed chef Carmen “Titita” Ramirez Degollado opened El Bajio, a restaurant where she wanted to serve traditional cuisine from all over Mexico- the menu features recipes from Veracruz, Puebla, Oaxaca and beyond. That single spot has grown to 19 today, and the original spot just celebrated its 50th anniversary!
Enter Casa Carmen. Today, Titita’s grandsons, Sebastian and Santiago Ramirez Degollado, who both grew up in Mexico City helping out in El Bajio’s kitchens and now live in New York, wanted to transport the same Mexican food to the city. They also wanted to pay homage to their beloved Titita. The duo are the helm of the next generation of the family’s restaurateurs and have put together a world-class team and venues to deliver an outstanding experience.
Both locations are design showpieces to start and resemble Mexican haciendas with their woven textiles, clay pottery, plants and other decorative elements from the country. And the expansive list of tequilas and mezcals- oh my. Let’s just that any agave lover will be spoiled for choice.
Then there’s the food: head chef Ivan Gonzalez trained with Titita for months before heading to the US to show off his skills. With his ceviches, tacos, fish Veracruz and other creations, he has become the culinary love of my life.
Casa Carmen is a buzzy restaurant with a cool crowd at both locations, and the convivial staff treats all diners like family.
I spoke to Sebastian and Santiago about their vision for Casa Carmen and what they hope to achieve. Our interview follows with both of them answering together:
What is your culinary concept?
Our concept is traditional Mexican cuisine, served alongside cocktails made with agave spirits and other Mexican distillates. We serve dishes that one would eat at their grandmother’s house in Mexico City on any given day of the week— authentic plates from Yucatan and Veracruz in a cozy Mexican atmosphere within clay, stone, and stucco earthy walls.
Where do your recipes come from?
Our recipes come from our grandmother Carmen “Titita” Ramirez Degollado. Our menu is mostly a subset of all the recipes she has developed at her restaurant El Bajio over the past 50 years.
How are you trying to change or integrate into New York’s Mexican restaurant landscape?
We want to make customers feel the friendly and warm service that characterizes Mexico. Through our flavors, decor, and music, we want guests to feel transported to Mexico whenever they dine with us.
What do you think is missing in this landscape that Casa Carmen brings?
Casa Carmen brings real authentic recipes that sound simple but are very difficult to make in their best expression, such as garnachas, mole, and pulpo al mojo de ajo to mention a few.
Or our Empanadas de platano con frijol- plantain empanadas filled with refried beans. This is a very typical dish in tropical Xalapa, Veracruz where Carmen is from and a best seller in her Mexico City restaurants. The mixture of saltiness of the beans with the soft sweetness of the fried plantain pair perfectly with the charred chipotle black sauce which is spicy and smoky.
Another example is our Pollo con mole Xico. Xico is a small town close to Xalapa. This dark mole has over 30 ingredients including chiles, seeds, fruits and even chocolate. This recipe is so complex and time consuming that only a handful of mayoras (experienced women cooks) trained by Carmen know how to cook it.
There are no restaurants in New York City that offer the feel and taste of Mexico like Casa Carmen.
Who are your chefs?
Our Head Chef is Ivan Gonzalez, and Arturo Benito is the Chef at the new Flatiron location of Casa Carmen. Ivan spent over 2 months learning Chef Titita’s recipes in Mexico City and collaborates with the corporate chef at El Bajio to maintain taste and quality standards.
When it comes to drinking in Mexico, agave spirits rule. Tell me about your offerings.
We offer around 60 mezcals and 80 tequilas at Casa Carmen. Our margaritas and mezcalitos are the best sellers. We use Tradicional Reposado or 400 Conejos with fresh juice and homemade chipotle and black lava salt on the rim. We also offer Cristalinos and organic Tequilas.
You also showcase Mexican wines. Can you talk about what they are and where they come from?
We mainly carry wines from Valle de Guadalupe with Monte Xanic, La Cetto, Santo Tomas, and Adobe being the most popular. They are acidic and offer a smooth pairing with tacos, mole, and Pescado Veracruzana.
What’s next for the Degollado brothers?
For now, we are working hard and focusing on consolidating the Casa Carmen concept in NYC, and making it the go-to Mexican restaurant for margaritas and antojitos or a full dining experience as if you were in Polanco or La Roma in Mexico City. We are always open to new adventures and we are also exploring a taco concept in the near future.