Caracara Mexican Grill in Farmingdale recently had a chef change. Two months ago, Nestor Hernandez, who cooked at Bin 56 in Huntington and Catfish Max in Seaford, took the reins from Richard Caruso. Caruso earned 2½ stars for creating the restaurant's menu, bringing to bear his Manhattan experience at Rosa Mexicano and Pelea Mexicana.
Caracara's repertoire remains the same as it's been from the start, said owner Peter Rousakis. Fondly recalled from past visits are a lush chicken tamale, still $9, and a quartet of soft corn tacos, which continue to cost $17 at lunch and $18 at dinner.
The decor here has a rather heavy medieval look. But wrought-iron wall hangings, while not quite my taste, won't stop us from returning really soon.
Lunch, Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30p.m., dinner, Sunday to Wednesday, 4 to 10 p.m., Thursday to Saturday, 4 to 11p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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My tamale can talk. At Caracara in Farmingdale, I listen to the fluffy bundle of shredded chicken, fresh corn and masa (cornmeal dough), all wrapped in a corn husk and sauced with a rich, nuanced mole. It tells me I'm at a serious Mexican restaurant whose chef, Richard Caruso, can cook in ways both subtle and satisfying.
Caracara is a place that's as right for weekday lunch as it is for weekend dinner. By day, the ambience is a bit dark, almost medieval. Later, lit candles in wall recesses lend an aura of glamour.
It's showtime -- at least if you order guacamole. Fresh avocados are pitted and pounded tableside with tomatoes, cilantro, diced onion and jalapeños, to taste, served with addictive nacho chips. At lunch, a Mexican Cobb salad made with juicy grilled chicken, bacon, avocado, eggs, tomato and Maytag blue cheese works well -- despite the untoward presence of diced fruit.
Each in a lineup of soft corn tacos -- filled, respectively, with chicken, steak, shrimp and fish -- is delicious in its own right, and about as close to authentic as it gets outside a taqueria geared to native Mexicans (or true taco maniacs).
From a roster titled "tacos a la plancha" (iron skillet tacos), I'm most taken with the cochinita pibil, pork slow-cooked in a banana leaf, served with a side of soft corn tortillas. Skewered steak with chorizo, sausage and peppers features flavorful, succulent meat. I'm impressed with an entree of lovely roasted salmon plated over spinach, with a spicy-sweet fruit mole sauce made with plums, raisins, prunes, pasilla chilies.
To conclude: house-made berry tres leches cake that's moist, fruity, ideal. And a homey skillet apple pie.
NOT SO HOT TAMALE
A pitcher of sangria is oddly sour. A replacement (better, but not awesome) is cheerfully brought.
It's hard to manage my skewered steak, which rests atop way too much salsa (red and green). The iron skillet marinated chicken is undermined by dry white meat. And rice and beans are bland, humdrum.
A vibrant, promising spot. Let the fiesta begin.