New York City’s hottest new restaurant opening comes from a famed Mexican chef’s family that’s spotlighting food from Veracruz.
Casa Carmen, named after Carmen Ramirez Degollado—who food writer Mark Bittman called one of the “Matriarchs of Mexican flavor”—is the first restaurant for her grandsons Santiago Ramirez Degollado and Sebastian Ramirez Degollado. They’re hoping to highlight the regional cooking she has further popularized in Mexico City.
Their grandmother is best known as the force behind the popular El Bajio restaurants in Mexico City, a business she helped expand from a single outpost in 1972 to a mini-empire with 19 locations across the city. In the decades since its opening, Carmen Ramirez Degollado has established El Bajio as a go-to destination for homestyle cooking from Veracruz, Puebla, and Oaxaca. In 2007, acclaimed chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame told Bittman, “El Bajío, without any doubt, is the best restaurant of Mexican cuisine that I have been in in my life.”
Her grandsons are now hoping to translate that success in New York, where dishes from those regions are harder to find. Carmen Ramirez Degollado hails from Xalapa, in Veracruz, and much of her cooking is inspired by the food she learned to make at home as well as through her travels across Mexico—such as dishes like a Veracruz-style white fish topped with tomato salsa, olives, and guero peppers, and a Yucatecan refried tortilla dish, panuchos, served with cochinita pibil and pickled onions, both of which feature prominently on the menu.
“It’s a dream come true,” says Sebastian Ramirez Degollado of Casa Carmen’s early April opening in Tribeca. “Seeing our grandmother walk through the door and seeing her so excited was definitely amazing.”
While Casa Carmen has several new dishes, some of the highlights so far are favorites from El Bajio, says Degollado. The fried plantain empanadas, also featuring refried beans and a charred chipotle salsa, are a best seller. The dish is a take on a Veracruz specialty where the plantains are shaped into balls. One of Degollado’s favorites is the huauzontles stuffed with panela cheese. The edible plant, which is native to Mexico, is prepared similar to crab cakes, Degollado says, and served with mole or a tomato salsa.
Casa Carmen’s menu is expansive, but all of it is designed to be shared. He recommends kicking things off with a few starters like the ceviche, which is prepared with different fish each day and topped with olives, avocados, and tomatillos, among other ingredients; moving on to tacos, a crowd favorite at El Bajio, like the carnitas; choosing between a main like the rib eye that’s served over tortillas with refried beans or the chicken mole, a version of the beloved dish served at El Bajio; and ending with some homestyle desserts like the caramel flan or warm corn cakes studded with kernels and served with hazelnut ice cream.
Carmen Ramirez Degollado was on hand to oversee the kitchen during the first week of operations in April, and El Bajio’s executive chef and Sebastian and Santiago’s uncle, Josep Rivera, is staying on for a few more weeks to ensure a smooth transition.
“These recipes are our family heritage,” says Degollado. “They are based on my grandmother’s travels throughout Mexico.”
The cocktails at Casa Carmen are still a work in progress, Degollado says, but he expects the restaurant will unveil a full list in the next few weeks.
In the meantime, there’s a sizable selection of margaritas and mezcalitas offered in a variety of flavors including mango, cranberry, and pink grapefruit. Diners have also been drawn to Casa Carmen’s Mexican wine selection, Degollado says, which is largely focused on bottles from the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja and the Parras Valley in Central Mexico. The restaurant also stocks a wide selection of tequila, mezcal, and gin that are served by the glass.
The El Bajio restaurants are typified by their bright pops of color seen both in the furniture and the arts and crafts displayed throughout the various locations.
At Casa Carmen, Degollado says the family decided to take a minimalist approach. Luis Enrique Noriega, the same designer behind the El Bajio restaurants, created a more subdued, homey design for the New York space along with architecture firm Legeard Studio. Earthy tones dominate alongside textured walls and a high, beamed ceiling.
The restaurant opens up into a bar area with 12 seats along a counter and additional high top seating along a communal table in the center. Beyond that, the main dining room seats 90 on tables that can seat anywhere from two to six people.
“You feel like you are transported to a Mexican home,” says Degollado.
Casa Carmen is open daily from 5 pm to 11 pm. The restaurant plans to add brunch and lunch services in the near future.