The Quiet Revolution of Mexican Cuisine in NYC: Chef Cosme Aguilar’s Journey

New York City-based chef Cosme Aguilar’s embrace of regional flavors has turned him into a culinary sensation.

Text by Shannon Thaler
Images by Mariana Pelaez

Among New York City’s go-to cuisines, Mexican has long held its own alongside local favorites like a cheesy slice of pizza and hand-rolled bagels with “the works.” But unlike the city’s luxe restaurants, where reservation lists stretch months out and extravagant desserts vie for a square on an Instagram feed, top-notch Mexican restaurants have notoriously flown under the radar, attracting foodies to eateries nestled in hidden corners of the five boroughs. 

No one knows this better than chef Cosme Aguilar, whose popular Casa Enrique in Queens’ Long Island City neighborhood became the first Mexican restaurant in New York to nab a coveted Michelin star. Aguilar is known for his traditional-yet-innovative dishes, such as Chamorro de Borrego al Huaxamole, a Colorado lamb shank braised in chili pulla, huajes (a legume with a flavor similar to tamarind) and cilantro, served with rice and beans. His mole sauce, featured in dishes such as Mole de Piaxtla, is the stuff of legend. 

Aguilar prioritizes family recipes that have been inspired by his mother, he says. As for why Casa Enrique has consistently made best of lists 12 years after its inception, he says, simply, “The food is excellent.” 

Though he has become one of the best-known masters of Mexican cuisine in New York, Aguilar didn’t set out to be a chef when he moved to the U.S. in 1998 from Cintalapa, Chiapas, Mexico. It’s one of the southernmost parts of the country, known for its well-preserved Mayan architecture, fragrant coffee, and scenic beaches and rainforests.

“I was not looking to be a chef,” Aguilar says. “I was trying to make some money working for six months and then go back to Mexico,” he says. He landed his first restaurant gig at a now-defunct French spot in Chelsea called Le Solex. 

“I was working overnight cleaning the kitchen and as a porter,” Aguilar recalls, saying the rest of the restaurant’s staff would clock into work just as he finished. “I worked from 12am to 8am, so they could start prepping.” One day, the restaurant was hosting a party and needed extra help. He stayed, and the chef spotted his potential. “He said, ‘You belong in the kitchen.’” Aguilar gradually worked his way up through ranks, and never did make that move back to Mexico

Now 43 years old, Aguilar has an expansive following and network of culinary contacts, which he attributes to his historic Michelin Star win in 2015. (The restaurant has also garnered the award six more times since.) 

His latest venture is Quique Crudo, a seafood-focused bar on Bedford St. in Manhattan’s West Village that opened at the end of 2023. Quique Crudo’s launch has been a bit different than that of Casa Enrique, which took place with the help of Aguilar’s brother, Luis. 

Aguilar’s new eatery draws on some of the elements that made Casa Enrique a smashing success. It is, however, fully seafood forward, serving small-bite plates such as ceviche made with the day’s fresh catch, as well as fried oysters, and a crab tostada. A steak tartar tostada is a notable, land-inspired dish. 

Though mole only makes a singular appearance on Quique Crudo’s menu, in a sumptuous chicken-and-mole dish, the sauce—authentically made with hot chiles, rich chocolate, and a blend of warm spices—is what Aguilar says he thinks of at the mention of Mexican cuisine. The rest of the refined menu Aguilar attributes to his experience fostering Casa Enrique, where he says “every day, we learned something new, so every day we got better and better.” 

Cocktails also take center stage here, with roughly 40 delicious concoctions, featuring ingredients like mezcal, cachaça, and Mexican liquors. 

While chef Aguilar still drops into Casa Enrique all the time, he says, he is happily plating food and working in the open kitchen at Quique Crudo. The copper-pot-lined galley is quintessentially New York in its size, with just enough room for two cooks, a couple of induction burners and a vat of ice to display the night’s fish on order. Still, the kitchen is the heart of the 700-square-foot, 20 diner-capacity space, where the best seat is no doubt at the bar that looks into the kitchen. 

a closeup of a dish from Aguilar's new restaurant, Quique Crudo
Aguilar’s new restaurant Quique Crudo is seafood forward.

It’s also Aguilar’s favorite spot. For this chef, the ability to cook at the counter, chat with customers, and watch them enjoying the food is what makes manning Quique Crudo’s kitchen the best part of every workday.

On the lone day he allows himself off, Sundays, Aguilar whips up relaxed dinners for his wife and daughter. “I like to cook steak, pasta—everything simple, not complicated—unless friends are coming over, then I do something more complex,” he says.

Will Quique Crudo win a Michelin star too? It’s not a particular goal, says Aguilar. Still, he says, just “as an actor you don’t work to win an Oscar. But if it comes, welcome! Same here.”



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