Moments after stepping off the N train in Astoria, I felt as if I had entered a Christmas scene. A blow-up Santa waved people over to the lines of evergreen trees neatly tied and stacked on the sidewalk; a bakery sported elves made out of bread; and my destination, MexiQ Kitchen & Draught, had blithe snowflakes drawn all over its large glass windows.
Inside, owner Dino Philippou’s (of Cavo) three-month-old restaurant looks like the remnants of a John Hughes film, perhaps an after-school job for a bright-eyed Eric Stoltz or dreamy Molly Ringwald. It sports three pointless, encased fireplaces burning in the center of the large space, a water-wall pouring over a TV, four screens over the long bar showing sports and diner-meets-cafeteriatype booths and tables. We arrived just in time for the $5 house margarita and $3 Mexican beer happy hour (daily until 7) and migrated from the long, sturdy bar to a cozy booth in the almost-empty restaurant. Within 30 minutes, we were on our second round of margaritas ($8), and the place had filled up as we sampled two complimentary yellow and blue fried tortilla discs (whole) with a tiny squeeze bottle of a mild salsa.
Despite the restaurant’s bizarre take on chips and salsa, the anticipation of a guacamole flight ($6 each or $16 for three)which included roasted pork belly, chicken cracklin’ and classic guachad our eyes aglow. Unfortunately, what we thought would be three different guacamole taste experiences turned out to be three scoops of the same stuff, just with bits of super salty fried meat on them. The dip tasted fresh and had a nice lime kick, but for $6 you can order just one and save your money for something elselike a side of tortillas or an extra hunk of jalapeno goat cheese bread ($4), which you will need if you order the plate of carnitas ($16).
On the bar menu, tortillas were included with the order, so I was surprised when our dish of sizzling meat came with only half of a tiny circle of the cornbread, not nearly enough to eat with the pile of saucy pork. While it lacked starch, the flavor of cinnamon and citrus mingled well with the Coca-Cola braised pork, a classic combo coming from consulting chef Julieta Ballesteros of Los Feliz and Crema fame. We didn’t mind the KC Masterpiece taste of the pork, but we did expect a carnitas dish to be a bit drier; the soupy sauce combined with goopy, fatty meat was off-putting.
Like its name, MexiQ (unrelated to the food truck with the same pronunciation) is a combination of traditional Mexican, Tex-Mex and southern BBQan interesting mash-up, but in this case, not terribly successful. For example, the devil corn quesadilla ($12) was presented marvelously with delicate streaks of Mexican crema and salsa roja across a perfectly cooked flaky shell, complementing the dark cheese oozing down the sides. It looked good, but why anyone would mix Gruyere cheese with huitlacoche (a black fungus that grows on corn) is beyond me. The black insides were mysterious, but the overall bitterness of the dish came from their poor choice of cheese.
By the time we tried this dish, everything else on the menu looked like an expensive experiment doomed to fail. So, instead of sampling the Mexican fried chicken ($13 for half, $25 for a whole) or the daunting pile of fiesta nachos ($9) that our neighbors had, we settled on a chocolate-habanero crme brle ($9) and a glass of the Troegs happily hoppy Mad Elf ($7). Neither disappointed. The dessert proved creamy, just as it should, and exuded a nice bite from the peppers that cooled with a dollop of fresh whipped cream. The beer was a great reflection of the restaurant’s dozens of taps, including five dedicated to seasonal brews all between $5 and $8.
The service also didn’t displease, as our waitress was quick, friendly, aware and thoughtful; she did after all assure us we could easily handle five margaritas no problem. But, even with good drinks and happy waiters, I still can’t find any reason to travel to Queens to eat at MexiQ Kitchen & Draught, especially with Manhattan prices and with really good Mexican and Tex-Mex just a hop-skipand-a-jump away in Jackson Heights.
MexiQ Kitchen & Draught
37-11 30th Ave. (betw. 37th & 38th Sts.),