NYCReview

photo credit: Kate Previte

El Kallejon image
8.5

El Kallejon

Mexican

East Harlem

$$$$Perfect For:First/Early in the Game Dates

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Every inch of El Kallejon is covered in Huichol cats, rainbow piñatas, and grinning sugar skulls. This East Harlem restaurant looks—to the cynical, phone-weary eye—like a TikTok trap, and the owner, chef Nester Leon, has some hoarder tendencies. But after a meal here, it’ll become obvious that he opened this place in 2012 not as a viral backdrop, but as a shrine to his beloved Mexico City.

Though El Kallejon looks like the Mexican mercado of your dreams, the food is more of an ode to Mexican cuisine, not a classic rendition. You won’t find anything resembling it in Spanish Harlem, maybe not even in CDMX. Japanese, French, and other international influences fly freely in signature dishes like escargots with a silky pasilla sauce, crispy beef brain flautas sprinkled with tobiko, and grilled shark tostadas with kalbi sauce.

El Kallejon image

photo credit: Kate Previte

El Kallejon image

photo credit: Kate Previte

El Kallejon image

photo credit: Kate Previte

El Kallejon image

photo credit: Kate Previte

El Kallejon image

photo credit: Kate Previte

El Kallejon image
El Kallejon image
El Kallejon image
El Kallejon image
El Kallejon image

These tapas-style plates, elaborately staged with toasted corn husks and hibiscus flowers, appear sometimes on Instagram, where El Kallejon is actually quite active nowadays. But most people discover this place the old-fashioned way, by stumbling upon its colorful signs on East 117th, and it stays pretty low-key. You can usually find Nestor hosting just one or two other tables, looking through his collection of artisanal mezcals and tequilas for something his guests haven’t tried yet.

But El Kallejon is always ready for a party if you bring one. Every cocktail comes dressed in fruits and flowers, ready for a fiesta, and there’s a nice back patio for warmer nights. Order at least two tapas per person, and always ask about the specials. If pork shoulder is involved, get it. Share a flatbread topped with huitlacoche and shiitake mushrooms, and pair its pungent flavors with one of the sweeter Latin American wines. 

El Kallejon image

photo credit: Kate Previte

The last time we were there, the chef was behind the bar in a lucha libre mask, doing something with rose-infused tequila and a blowtorch. We watched the mask get caught for a second, on a winged donkey toy hanging above his head. There was no social media strategy involved in the making of that moment. This place is 100% Nestor, and Mexican food exactly as he imagines it.

Food Rundown

El Kallejon image

photo credit: Kate Previte

Guacamole al Kallejon

El Kallejon does an elaborate guacamole topped with ribbons of hickory crab, shrimp, and fresh pomegranate. The seafood is super fresh, and pomegranate seeds add a nice textural component to it all.
El Kallejon image

photo credit: Kate Previte

Caracoles al Mezcal y Pasilla

El Kallejon’s escargot is coated in a super smoky mezcal and pasilla sauce that makes it look like the snails were caught in an oil spill. Order it.

Crispy Flautas de Pensamientos

There’s a bright pink sign outside the restaurant pointing you towards “Brain Flautas,” so you know they really want you to order this one. The brains (sesos) in question are either beef or goat, depending on the day, and have a soft, custard-like texture that’s a nice contrast to the extra crispy flautas. These get some extra salty flavor from the tobiko sprinkled on top.
El Kallejon image

photo credit: Kate Previte

Fish Tacos

On a menu with escargot and brains on it, fish tacos might feel boring, but these are worth it. One order includes three small tortillas, topped with two-bite chunks of crispy fish. The fish is already pretty flavorful on its own, but it comes with a creamy orange chili de arbol salsa that adds something smokier.
El Kallejon image

photo credit: Kate Previte

Vuelve a la Vida Ceviche

El Kallejon makes a killer ceviche—this one comes in a martini glass with shrimp, octopus, and whichever white fish they have on hand, in a very spicy lime juice.
El Kallejon image

photo credit: Kate Previte

Maria Sabina Coca Del Kallejon

There’s a whole section of Spanish-style cocas, and this particular flatbread—topped with huitlacoche, shiitake mushrooms, goat cheese, and truffle oil—pairs well with some of the sweeter Latin American wines. Get one to share.
El Kallejon image

photo credit: Kate Previte

Pork Shoulder Special

The specials rotate, but there’s usually something with tender, slow-roasted pork shoulder available. This one is mixed in with a creamy, cheesy, cherry tomato sauce that’ll make your eyes roll all the way back and around again. They always serve it with warm, handmade corn tortillas, and it’s the first thing we ask about when we come in.

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FOOD RUNDOWN

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