399 Montauk Hwy., West Islip
SERVICE: Warm, helpful and knowledgeable, but you’ll have to box your own leftovers
AMBIENCE: Tightly-packed country house of a space that doesn’t feel that way thanks to a festive atmosphere.
ESSENTIALS: Open daily 4 to 11 p.m.; wheelchair accessible; has a parking lot, but you might have to park on the street when it’s busy; valet parking available on Friday and Saturday
It’s been 10 years since Besito opened a new outpost on Long Island, but where this wildly popular upscale Mexican restaurant goes, diners flock.
Such has been the case since this chainlet branched out from the North Shore, setting up shop in West Islip in late September.
On a recent Monday, diners overflowed into the parking lot, despite an especially frigid night. Later in the week, a couple looking for a table around 7 p.m. was told the wait would be an hour. Snag reservations.
It’s all a testament to the ingenuity of owners John Tunney and John Rieger, and Carlos Arellano, the executive chef for all three Long Island restaurants. The three have pushed a genre of Mexican food void of stereotypes such as chimichangas, and found there is an audience ready to embrace a more authentic south-of-the-border dining experience, albeit with subdued spice and sweeter than normal flavors.
The low-ceilinged country house that once housed Roots Bistro Gourmand is smaller and more intimate than Besito’s Roslyn and Huntington locations. Tunney and his team have given it a Besito-esque makeover highlighted by eucalyptus wood beams, dim lighting and dramatic pendant lights.
In the weeks leading up to the opening, Tunney said he entertained making changes to the menu, but in the end decided to stick with a carbon copy of those at his other Island locations. No sense messing with what works.
As your table debates how to attack the menu, order a margarita. I was partial to the partida natural, a simple and clean mix of tequila, agave and lime juice, as well as the refreshing cucumber and jalapeño-forward El Pepino. And say “yes” to the guacamole, which comes with an order of warm and well-made tortilla chips. At a table of four, they might suggest a double order. Resist. Portions here are big and there is an entire meal ahead of you.
As you move to the rest of the menu, consider plates that are meant for sharing. You can have an entire meal of appetizers, which tend to be better than the entrees.
Share the queso fundido, a Mexican play on cheese dip with creamy onions, poblanos and crispy chorizo crumbles with warm tortillas for wrapping, and the shrimp empanadas, mini corn flour croquettes stuffed with an oozing mix of shrimp and chipotle crema, a subtly spiced Mexican sour cream.
The best of the starters is the chile rellenos, here an inventive and slightly healthier take on typical versions packed with cheese. Meaty poblano peppers are stuffed with a mix that includes corn, mushrooms and spinach. The plate arrives scorching hot, topped with molten cheese, wading in a tomato-rich ranchera sauce.
When Arellano goes overboard, the menu suffers. Take the iron skillets, a sort of mash-up of the fundido and fajitas. It’s a bit of a jumble lacking the same care and authenticity found on the rest of the menu.
The sonora ribs turn heads as they make their way through the room, heaping plates of separated baby back ribs stacked majestically like a Jenga puzzle, each lacquered in a glaze of agave, chipotle and lime. The sauce was sweet and cloying on ribs that struggle to fall off the bone. They work better in the pork castillo tacos, where the meat has been pulled, tossed in the same glaze and layered into warm tortillas with a spicy slaw.
The enchiladas suizas, a dish I absolutely adore, was another miss. Tortillas are typically rolled with chicken that has been tossed with a green salsa, topped with more salsa, cheese and baked until bubbling hot. Here the chicken was dry in parts and lacking in flavor while the poblano cream sauce was heavy on the cream and light on the poblano.
Instead, opt for the crab budin, a play on lasagna, with tortillas layered with shredded crab and bites of shrimp, finished with a mozzarella-like Chihuahua cheese and creamy green poblano salsa. Or the beef short ribs, a generous helping of fork tender boneless ribs served with an earthy salsa.
If you have any room for dessert, there are several daily. On one occasion, the signature flan was undercooked. On multiple visits, the current pumpkin version was overly sweet.
Instead, go for the traditional tres leches (there is also a chocolate one) a sponge cake that has been soaked in three kinds of milk (condensed, evaporated and heavy cream); or, skip them altogether for the complimentary churros and one last round of margaritas. Fun, Besito has down to a science.