Tex–Mex cuisine has always had a lowbrow reputation outside of its home territory, much as barbecue did a generation ago. You could visit these places for fun and sustenance, but the cooking was never taken seriously.
Javelina aims to change that. It’s the first local Tex–Mex joint I can remember where you actually knew the name of the chef: Richard Caruso, who’s been at Rosa Mexicano and Hill Country. Pat LaFrieda is on hand to supply the beef for all those tacos and enchiladas; or, if you prefer to have your beef naked, there’s a 28-day dry-aged cowboy steak for $38.
As the modern trend requires, there’s a large-format dish, the Parrilladas Mixtas, essentially the fajita platter of the gods, with six proteins (lobster extra) and abundant side dishes, costing $65 for two or $125 for four. But most of the food clocks in at much lower prices. No other item on the two-page menu is more than $25, and portions are generous.
The restaurant is named for a kind of wild pig that roams the wilds of Texas. A stuffed specimen is on display above the bar, and you can see from its sharp teeth that this isn’t an animal to be toyed with.
They take reservations, and you might need one. On a Wednesday evening, there was no chance of getting seated before our 7:45 booking, and the bar was packed too. We cooled our heels at the quiet Italian trattoria next door: Javelina might be the best thing that’s happened to them in years. On a recent evening, Eater’s Ryan Sutton waited 90 minutes for bar seats, got nothing, and gave up.
Once you get in, the sound level is punishing: those brick walls and hard surfaces turn the dining room into an echo chamber. Is it worth the trouble? Not as far as we could tell. We found the food like most of the city’s Tex–Mex: acceptable for what it is, but not worthy of the destination status that diners are conferring on Javelina in its early days.
The usual chips & salsa (above left) were a shade better than you usually get. But Shrimp Fajitas ($25; above right) seemed to be the same as you’d find anywhere.
The so-called “West Texas Stacked Enchiladas” ($20; above left), seemed quite ordinary to me: an undifferentiated stack of tortillas, pork, peppers, green chile, onions, cheese, and cilantro. A small, free dessert is served at every table, and it’s delightful: a soft, triangular soft pocket of warm dough sprinkled in brown sugar, with a dipping sauce (above right).
The beverage menu has a few specialties that are worth trying, like a spicy negroni that gets its kick from mole bitters. Among the frozen margaritas, there are several options, ranging from old standards to an avocado and cilantro mix. The service is fine for such a crowded place. At times, our server couldn’t be found when we needed her, but there are plenty of staff wandering the floor, and they’ll do as you ask, once you flag them down.
There’s nothing wrong with this: I eat Tex–Mex all the time, and love it. But I don’t think Javelina is special enough to warrant the trouble getting in. If the crowds ever die down, and it becomes a place where you can just drop in when you’re in the mood, it might be worthwhile.
Javelina (119 E. 18th St. Between Park Avenue and Irving Place, Union Square)
Food: Classic Tex–Mex
Service: Occasionally absent, but generally okay
Ambiance: A punishingly loud and crowded room
Rating: Not Recommended