Todd Mitgang is experimenting with a new genre of restaurant that some people are calling “fast fine.”
At his Cascabel Taqueria on New York City’s tony Upper East Side, guests order at the counter and are served at their tables, fast-casual style. But the food they are served in this casual setting is made from top-shelf ingredients.
Title: chef-owner, Cascabel Taqueria, New York City
Birth date: Aug. 30, 1980
Hometown: Roslyn, N.Y.
Education: bachelor of science from the University of Buffalo; six-month course at the French Culinary Institute in N.Y.
Career highlights: being an executive chef at age 22; being a successful restaurant owner at age 27; cooking at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone with Kittichai chef Ian Chalermkittichai; seeing lines out the door at Cascabel
Chef’s tip: When working with an ingredient that’s new to you, taste it raw first and then experiment from there.
During the course of his career, Mitgang has had a lot of luck — both good and bad. He got his start at Lisenda, a 60-seat fine-dining restaurant in Long Island, N.Y., where he stumbled into the executive chef position at age 22, just as he was coming out of culinary school.
Next he landed a job as lead line cook at Kittichai, a high-end Manhattan Thai restaurant. A week into that job, as luck would have it, one of the sous chefs quit and Mitgang replaced him. He later was promoted to chef de cuisine.
He went on to open Crave Ceviche Bar, which featured all sorts of cured preparations from an array of ethnic backgrounds. It enjoyed critical and financial success in the competitive New York City food scene until, in a freak accident, it was crushed by a collapsing crane in 2008.
While dealing with his insurance company and landlord, Mitgang got involved in his current project, which has received rave reviews.
What’s your check average at Cascabel?
We’re in the $15-$25 range.
So your style is fast-casual, but your check average is more upscale.
We wanted to take pressure off the diners. We want them to know that we’re going to provide them with incredible service and food, but you don’t necessarily need to tip 20 percent. By asking people to order at the counter, it takes a little off of our labor cost, and once they sit down, they really don’t need to get up again. There are no garbage cans out because we clear the table.
We wanted to differentiate ourselves cuisine-wise from many fast-casual restaurants. So even though the pork in our tacos is pulled, we’re going to sear it on the plancha to give you something that’s texturally different from most fast-casual restaurants. We also put four salsas on the table. That hurts my food cost, but we want to provide that. I also priced all of the tacos at $7.50 because I didn’t want someone to favor one taco over another because it’s 50 cents more or less. I want them to order what they want to eat.
What kinds of ingredients do you use?
I like to say it’s honest food. I make suckling pigs on weekends, and we don’t deliver it because we couldn’t keep up with demand. My Hudson Valley duck tamales start with masa, duck fat and duck stock. My beef tamales start with Akaushi brisket from Texas that we grind here, and it’s got beef fat and beef stock in it. Our chorizo is made here.
I have a little counter-top deep-fryer and we make our own churros. We make the crema fresca here, too. It’s easier to buy it, but these things make a difference. We also have heirloom beans with the tostada bar at brunch on weekends.
Tell me about your beverages.
We recently introduced tequila. We had a full liquor license and we held back on it for a little while, because we already have a great beer and wine program.
The only one we sell is tequila, and we sell eight different ones: two silvers, two reposados, two añejos and two top-tier super-añejos. You can either take a straight pour or a chilled shot, a lime Margarita — fresh lime juice, agave nectar and the tequila, shaken up.
We also do a grapefruit-spiced tequila with a little Thai chile. The silver tequilas are $9, the reposados are $12, the añejos are $18, and the super añejos are $22.
We also offer “El Borracho,” which means “the drunk,” in Spanish. It’s an ounce of each of the eight tequilas with tasting notes. Some people actually come in and order it for themselves, which is almost insane. But if you share it it’s fun, and you get educated.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]