La Esquina is a New York favorite serving authentic Mexican cuisine at its three distinct spaces in Soho: the taqueria, brasserie and café. This past summer, the late-night downtown hotspot expanded to Brooklyn with Café de La Esquina at Wythe Diner in Williamsburg. And the culinary mastermind behind our favorite south of the border dishes? It’s executive chef Akhtar Nawab, a Kentucky native, originally from India. We talked to Akhtar about how his diverse background has actually inspired his work at the Mexican joint, his go-to late-night eatery, and his hidden talent. Meet Akhtar!
What is the most fun part about working in the La Esquina world?
I would say the most fun is meeting new people.
Any differences in the menus between the original La Esquina and the new one in Brooklyn?
Brooklyn is a little more creative in some ways compared to Soho. We have a much larger kitchen there, so I have more room to experiment with new dishes. For instance, now we have a pork belly al pastor taquito, albondigas rellenos with a pasilla chile and raisin molo rojo. Fun stuff.
You have a varied culinary background and you yourself are of East Indian descent and were raised in Kentucky—how does your background impact what you are doing with Mexican cuisine?
It’s true! I am Indian, grew up in Kentucky, and am cooking Mexican food! Growing up on my mom’s cooking was a great influence to me. She is such a terrific cook.
Many of the flavors indigenous to Mexican cuisine came easily to me. While some elements are wildly different, there are many similarities in technique and flavor. A good example is the selection of Guisados we are serving in Brooklyn. We present them in Tiffin boxes, which are kind of an Indian lunchbox of sorts. It represents the rustic type of dish I created them to be, kind of a “make-your-own-taco” setup. The pistachio mole served with roasted snapper has the same kind of depth you taste in some Indian sauces. Really earthy and spicy!
What dish are you loving the most on the current La Esquina menu?
In Soho, we are serving a Nantucket bay scallop ceviche with a green apple salsa verde and butternut squash escabeche. I think the dish turned out really well and the flavors are great for winter.
If I weren’t a chef, I would be __________.
I would be a professional bass guitar player in a band covering Rush songs or a roadie for the upcoming tour. Truly, though, a musician.
What is something our viewers and readers would be surprised to learn about you?
Being Indian and a chef from Kentucky cooking Mexican isn’t enough!? I have a gorgeous 5-year-old little girl, Ela. I’m bananas about her. I have been playing bass guitar for 16 years and I used to go to India for 3 months at a time for 15 years.
What are your favorite late-night bites?
Always New York Noodle Town. Ever since I have lived in NYC, for me, it’s the best place to go late night. Ginger scallion lo mein, roast pork, salt and pepper shrimp. More sodium in one day than anyone needs for a month, but great.
What is the most unique dining experience you’ve ever had?
I stayed on a farm in Sicily for a couple of weeks. One day, I was able to make the ricotta with the farmer right after milking the sheep. We ate it right out of the basket with either sea salt or honey.
What is your favorite thing between two buns?
Tough… a fried oyster po boy or a Chicago-style Vienna Beef hot dog (with celery salt)
Do you have a favorite charity or a charity you support?
My favorite is the One for One program created by Toms shoes.
106 Kenmare Street
New York, NY
Cafe de La Esquina at Wythe Diner
225 Wythe Avenue