Chef Mario Hernandez and the same team behind Ofrenda broaden their horizons and bring modern Mexican food to New York with ingredients sourced from all over the great country to our south. While diners in this cozy, casual East Village space may feel like their orders are a little lost in translation, everything is guaranteed to still taste pretty great.
For those whose first love was not Mexican food, and thus did not devote a considerable amount of their spare time to stalking the cuisine throughout the city, some of the menu at The Black Ant can be a little difficult to decipher. Dishes are littered with words like pulque, chilacayote, requeson, chapulin, totomoxtle, and huitlacoche, which while lovely to read and sound out, could really mean anything from cheese to chicken feet for 90% of diners.
And between us, I’ve just listed a viscous, creamy alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant popular in central Mexico, a figleaf gourd, a cheese with a ricotta-like texture, grasshoppers, corn husks, and corn smut. Who would have thought?
All of this is not meant to devalue the quality of these intensely flavorful regional ingredients, because part of The Black Ant’s mission is to serve Mexican food that is fundamentally unfamiliar to New Yorkers. The success of the restaurant is indeed admirable then, because guacamole is not served by the truckload next to dry, barely decent tacos, and proteins other than chicken and beef anchor many of the main courses. But with a menu that sometimes reads like an encyclopedia of lost words of the Maya, The Black Ant risks becoming inaccessible.
This loss of accessibility would truly be a shame, because it is genuinely uplifting to see New Yorkers getting excited about Black Ant Guacamole packed with dried chipotle, tomato, cilantro, grilled scallions, a little orange, and crumbly black ant salt. It is such a good thing for the seriousness of the cuisine that unique, contemporary Mexican ingredients can be enjoyed across an appetizer and entree for under $30, and for that, The Black Ant should be lauded.
But do these New Yorkers know that their Tacos Enchapulinados are actually composed of grasshopper-crusted shrimp with a spicy habanero chile and garlic aioli? Well, now they do, but they probably didn’t when they first ate it. The Black Ant’s contribution to dining in New York would be so greatly enhanced if their menu became slightly more transparent, and just a little bit more instructive, because the Tacos de Chivo filled with yogurt avocado leaf (I’m still not sure what this would look like off of the plate) braised goat, pasilla chile salsa, and cured chiles (whose preparation again eludes me) are truly excellent. The meat is juicy and tender enough to fall apart in a single bite, balanced by alternating notes of sweetness and heat from the various peppers in the dish. Look, The Black Ant! You made New Yorkers love the taste of goat!
The Black Ant also has an answer to the East Village’s obsession with all things fried with their Cactus Fries, fresh, light, vegetal-like spears with a crispy crust meant to be dipped in a lightly spiced chipotle ketchup. They’re hot, not the least bit oily, and add a dense, green element to the overall meal.
The Pollo de Plaza Enchilada, while not as exciting as the enchilada with braised rabbit, acts like a gateway to the adventurous plates for the more risk averse eaters. Jerk roasted chicken is served with an amarillo chile puree with grilled, garlic braised green beans ("ejotes" on the menu) for a spicy and succulent bite.
It’s clear that The Black Ant is in a position to seriously change the way New Yorkers experience and understand Mexican food, yet the restaurant either hasn’t realized its authority, or it is falling short of making impactful waves in the scene. Either way, with a few adjustments to the menu, and a little less emphasis on the insectile delicacies on a few of the plates, The Black Ant could be big. Right now, you might order something you don’t understand, but at least it’ll be something that you’ve never before tasted. You’ll like it.