Tres Carnes, a New York mini-chain with a new branch in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of Midtown Manhattan, touts its food as a marriage of Tex-Mex and Texas-style barbecue. The wedding may spice up your lunch hour, but the pairing does not dazzle. While some of the dishes stand out, it’s mostly just Mexican fast food.
Tres Carnes describes itself as “a one-of-a-kind slow cooked and fast served barbeque eatery offering authentic Texas Smoked Mexican Fare.” Your meal will be “made-to-order [and] a great authentic Texas and Mexican food alternative to the same old Tex-Mex fare.”
But the offerings, while they can be customized, are not made to order. The various components are prepared ahead and doled out of stainless steel tubs suspended over a steam table. And while the place smells like a smokehouse and the brisket has a wonderful smoky flavor and a great texture, that was not the case for the other two meats on the menu during several recent visits.
The chicken, described as spiced with a dry rub and then smoked and chopped, was bland and damp, while the smoked pork shoulder, spiced with a “Texican” rub and then “pulled hot,” was dry and served in little cubes rather than in succulent shreds. As for the rice, beans, toppings and sides, most seemed pretty much standard issue Tex-Mex.
So if you go, focus on the standouts — the admirable smoked brisket, a burnt-ends brisket chili ($4.59) and an excellent smoked-chicken tortilla lime soup, with chunks of avocado, chicken, tomato and tortilla chips swimming in a thick, rich broth ($4.59). The brisket goes for $9.64 if slipped into a burrito or two soft corn tortilla tacos, or spooned over salad greens or over a bed of beans and rice. Both the chicken and pork shoulder are $8.96 as part of the same presentations. Servings are generous.
Ordering the food works in the dispiriting manner of Midtown fast-food joints these days. Call it the Chipotle Syndrome. The menu is announced on a huge board at the counter and follows a schematic diagram of numbered steps, each involving a mildly confusing set of choices. Once you’ve picked the meal form (burrito, tacos, salad or rice and beans), you pick your meat and then select, as a base, either green poblano rice or Mexican yellow rice and either pinto beans or black beans.
On top of that, your server can sprinkle grated cheese, pickled red onions and salsas ranging from mild to fiery. For an extra $1.84, you can also heap on roasted yellow corn kernels, bits of roasted squash and a dollop of “smashed” guacamole.
My favorites were the pickled onions, a mild pico de gallo (a fresh tomato salsa) and the guacamole, which I prefer chunky rather than puréed but was quite tasty nonetheless.
Drinks include Mexican sodas ($2.53), Mexican beers ($4.59), beer cocktails called micheladas ($5.97) and an agave-sweetened limeade ($2.76), which was too sweet and lacked fresh lime flavor. There are also domestic sodas and beers at somewhat lower prices, and free water, increasingly a rarity in Midtown spots that push overpriced and nonecological bottled water.
Tres Carnes offers seating — backless stools and thick wooden tabletops — for about 20, but most of its business appears to be carryout. The decor aims for a “funky smokehouse” ambiance, featuring loud pop music (“Rock That Baby!”) and rough wooden walls emblazoned with painted designs. No restroom, alas.
Much of the food packaging is recyclable or biodegradable and the staff is friendly and helpful. As for prices, Yelp users acknowledge that Tres Carnes is a little more expensive than Chipotle but worth it because of the smoked meats. But if it’s great smoked meats you want, you should go to Mighty Quinn, 37 blocks south in the East Village, where a far superior brisket plate is $9.25.
The Turtle Bay branch of Tres Carnes is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 9 p.m. It is located at 817 Second Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets. (212) 201-0715
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.