opened last spring by the same gifted crew who brought us the great fatty crab in the west village (and very soon on the upper west side), cabrito takes on mexican cookery with considerable flair and imagination.
prominent among the owners is zakary pelaccio, who began making huge culinary waves when he was chef at the williamsburg outpost chickenbone café, and continued to enthrall diners at 5 ninth and fatty crab. his sous chef at the latter restaurant, david schuttenberg, is cabrito's executive chef, and he proves to be more than up to the many challenges that mexican cooking presents. a third owner, rick camac, began his association with pelaccio at 5 ninth.
the dining room is crowded with rows of nearly communal tables that rapidly fill at prime time, when the restaurant can get boisterously loud. there is a long and busy bar along the west wall, and the semi-open kitchen is even busier than the bar. otherwise, like fatty crab, the décor is simple and straightforward, without much to distract you from the marvelous food.
as pelaccio and schuttenberg demonstrated at fatty crab, the kitchen at cabrito is not afraid to put out some pretty spicy dishes. the menu gives you fair warning by placing an "s" next to dishes that are in any way fiery.
the bar and its tenders aren't fooling around either. there are more than 40 tequilas available and a good group of house cocktails. the "hot and dirty martini," made with gin or vodka, is indeed hot and dirty, thanks to the presence of a pickled jalapeño and its pickling juices. i don't usually enjoy dirty martinis, but this one really kept on kicking.
jalapeño rellenos earn their little "s" on the menu, although because those peppers are so variable in heat, you never know what you're going to get in terms of a wallop or lack thereof. schuttenberg fills three fat jalapeños bits of tender red snapper, raisins, pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds) and tiny capers, and nestles them in a cooling puddle of crema. a most unusual and welcome beginning.
shrimp and tamarind ceviche has some real bite, no small thanks to the inclusion of sliced serrano chiles. the ceviche emulsion includes tamarind water, avocado, red onion and pepitas, and the shrimp is perfectly "cooked" by the citric acids present.
little flutes of almond milk are brought to cool matters before the next course.
tamarind is also front and center in a glaze for braised pork belly tacos, with minced red onion and julienned jicama. the tortillas are conspicuously fresh and warm, filled with wonderful corny flavors. is there anything that doesn't taste better when wrapped in a corn tortilla?
roasted and braised pork spare ribs are poked into a large bowl of searing arbol and guajillo chile stew with plenty of tender hominy grits swimming around. a pair of fried corn tortillas are on hand to be broken up for the dipping.
crunchy bits of roasted goat meat come with a ramekin of crema, another ramekin of cooled caramelized onions that have a coffee aftertaste and three flour tortillas, all showered with chopped cilantro.
our refried beans, sprinkled liberally with crumbled queso cojita, were way too salty, but i've had them that way before in authentic mexican restaurants.
there is only one dessert on the menu, but who can resist churros? the fat fried cruller fingers come with a thin and lovely chocolate sauce, and it all went perfectly with a nice clean shot of casa noble blanco tequila and an assertive sangrita chaser.
i've said it before: if you want to make a quick fortune, make a gory slasher movie and open it on halloween, or open a good mexican restaurant anywhere in america. cabrito's well-deserved wild popularity is ample proof of the latter's guaranteed success. -- cabrito 50 carmine st. between bedford and bleecker streets 212-929-5050 entrées: $12 to $24