Lalito

Lalito

Unless you’re looking for a late nite bail bond storefront or the defunct cult karaoke bar Winnie’s, little would lead you to this rather desolate street in Chinatown, just a stone’s throw away from windows alive with dead ducks and souvenir kiosks galore. But lo and very much behold – an entrance with old signage indicating food and fun appears with the address you’re seeking. It seems closed. But then you open the door.

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It’s a kind of cool 70’s vibe with a pop soundtrack to match. An arty, quasi romantic space with a very welcoming staff. Mustard colored banquettes hug the walls in curves around the room, formica tabletops offer a modern diner appeal and neon lights frame a seated bar – I like to think Jetsons. It’s got spunk. Until recently the restaurant was called Lalo but because of a conflict with an existing Cafe Lalo, it morphed into Lalito. Helmed by Chef Gerardo Gonzalez who was THE man at El Rey Luncheonette, specializing in a SoCal, healthful, Mexican ethos that caused a mini uproar on the lower east side when it first came to attention. Now we’ve arrived at his new Mexicali with-a-dollop-of-global+mediterranean tinged casual chic eatery. A few favorite dishes accompanied him but have been twisted and turned along the way with his Alice in Wonderland kind of hand.

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There’s a full bar complete with Mexican inspired designer cocktails. I tasted several belonging to dining companions and found them a bit on the sweet side. That can always be altered and the play on healthy but funky ingredients is worth exploration. I went with a French 75 before we moved on to an interesting wine list featuring a mix from California to European including natural wines. They’ve got bubbles and beer, a lovely pitcher of tequila sangria and for the non-alcoholic choices, many a flavorful agua fresca.

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Oh doubtfully shake your head if you must. Everyone will understand. But you’d be missing out on this incredibly good dish of Vegan Chicharrones with hot sauce, vinegar and yuh huh-spirulina. Kind of a subtle homage to Bugles. The table loved it and there were serious doubters. A soupçon of chagrin and then all were reaching for seconds…Puffed wheat dusted with chili powder and pepper, served with ready to squeeze pieces of lime over a piquant dipping sauce of pickled fruit that brought the whole dish and a cadre of new fans together.

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The Black Bean Squid Ink Dip is a mischevious take on classic black bean dip, but under the Mad Hatter’s watchful eyes, the kitchen uses cannellini beans colored with squid ink, tosses on pickled red onions, banana peppers, black garlic and cotija cheese resulting in a lively balance of flavors. It’s vibrant, fresh and fun.

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Shishito peppers are a favorite of mine. Usually a little char, a sprinkle of salt and we’re golden. But Lalito has their own plan and it’s a good one. Stuffed poblanos are officially on hiatus. The Shishitos En Nogada intertwine shaved walnuts in a pomegranate reduction with a generous splash of the arils and the result is buttery, tart, light, and zesty.

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Creamy with coconut milk – Coconut Rice

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Papas Bravas  were a crowd favorite, a nice edge of spice, creamy on the inside, crispy on the outside and practically preening with it’s shards of green herbs, dots of red paprika and a drizzle of crema. These were fabulous.

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The Brown Goddess Cucumber Salad was the only dish that had the ingredients to soar but just didn’t quite cut it for us. English cucumbers, mint, and candied pepitas in a brown mole vinaigrette were earthy but erratic. Maybe the narrative is just too complicated for one small bowl.

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I loved the Seared Sea Bass. Beautifully cooked and combined with curried masa, tomato powder, nigella, sumac yogurt, and chick peas. Sublime. But I have to add a big sigh, a kind of general complaint which extends to a few other plates – portions can be skimpy. The bass is so tasty but vanishes in a few small bites.

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Roasted half chicken demands it’s own table time swaddled in a shimmering spicy hot green pineapple sauce, rich with garlic and cilantro. A Pollo Asada that is uh…finger lickin’ bueno.

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Eggplant a la Plancha just might please your commonplace eggplant hater. Smattered with tahini and adorned with gomasio, a Japanese seasoning of roasted sesame seeds ground with sea salt plus the sweet, mild flavor of cubanelle, a Cuban frying pepper and an impeccable balance of lemon. Hits all the tastebuds.

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House-made, warm, fresh, wish-I-had-more tortillas are the best part of the Pork Carnitas. But followed by a close second on the meat. Offered as a single serving or for “lovers”. The tortillas may become your new paramour after this so I’d go whole hog. So to speak. Smoked, salted, stewed in pineapple juice and beer – tender, savory pork is festooned with rings of pickled red onions, red rimmed radishes, green herbs and lime. A swathe of crema and it’s another venture into wonderland.

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No tuxedo clad waiter with a cart full of anchovies here, this is the – we’re giving you big time umami but with a spirulina, capers, cashews, dulse bread crumbs and nutritional yeast version of a Vegan Caesar Salad. Not what you would have expected from a fantastic Caesar but definitely one you do not want to skip.

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A dip into the luscious rosy broth surrounding the Lamb Barbacoa is necessary. It’s an ingeniously soulful combination of flavors with velvet drops of masa gnocchi and flakes of cumin flavored meat that induces swooning but just ever so slightly.

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Goat Milk Flan with Pomelo, Tarragon and Olive Oil – and a birthday candle. Tangy creaminess with a hint of bittersweet and citrus. The right compliment to all that had come before. On the table and in life!

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The kitchen is an impressive alchemy of craft melding with screwball. Quirky combinations of fanciful ingredients and flavors give depth to Chef Gonzalez’s sly, smart, inventive menu. He takes the familiar, and then veers sharply into unexpected, keeping a diner on their toes. It’s fun, sometimes a little wicked and always oddly comforting.

Lalito

104 Bayard Street between Baxter/Mulberry St

646.998.3408

Open daily 11am-4pm and 6pm-midnight

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Do The Hokey Pulque & You Turn Yourself Around…

Pulqueria

That’s what it’s all about. Snap. Down and dirty. Or down and uber trendy. But trendy with a smile and a welcome mat. At least for now.

Mexican “street food” and drinks. Particularly drinks made with Pulque. Sassy drinks. Drinks that have names we know like Negroni or fun words in tandem like Inebriated Monkey (watermelon, epazote and Pulque). I started with the Repentant Serpent. And though you are not likely to repent, if you’re a lover of tamarind and milky fermented agave you are likely to be happy. That’s what Pulque’s about. I stayed happy even after I moved on to the tequila based Negroni. It’s all from the same plant so mix but never worry.

I really liked this place. I liked it when it was Doyers Vietnamese but now it’s clean and shiny and though a different cuisine and crowd – just as tempting. We got there at 8pm having a reservation but no glitterati list keeper at the door. He comes later. We passed the hidden entrance to Apotheke two doors down – the hi end cocktail gem owned by the same brother/sister team and made our way down curving concrete steps glowing with votive candles. You’re faced with three steel doors. It’s made to feel like you have to find the right rabbit hole but the music and laughter clearly emanate from behind door number one.

And behind that door is a veritable temple. Albeit with low ceilings. It is a basement after all but shhh, it’s pretending to be a quasi Mayan movie set. There’s a swinging bar area to your right and a beamed dining room to your left. It’s quite lovely, visually arresting and if the lighting were a bit more even, it would merit idols. Half of our table was in the grip of darkness and the rest on the verge of interrogation.

But the staff are a far cry from ‘El Mariachi’. They’re very personable and quick to commune about drinks and dishes. (Our smiling, queens born tattooed waitress seemed the real version of the CBS sitcom Two Broke Girls). We started with the Sikil Pak while we assembled our menu choices and downed those delightful Pulque cocktails. It’s a Mayan pumpkin seed dip with house made chips. Oh, if we all meet our demise in 2012, please let this dip survive. And me with it. It’s smoky, earthy, textured, a tad piquant and so so so good. We shall colonize the new world together.

Pulque is a grand seductress – we accepted her invitation in various forms. And we adorned her with food. It’s elevated street food, authentic tastes from the corner cook but in an upscale Mexican tapas version. Two tiny tacos per order for $11 but genuinely great tiny tacos and oddly filling. More starters arrived to lessen the blow of the Pulque siren. The pickled vegetables are beautiful. Spicy, briny, and surprisingly wonderful. Usually ubiquitous Mexi-corn comes off the cob in a glass mug layered with epazote, lime, chile piquin and topped with queso fresco. A comforting, fortifying show stopper. Then came the procession – a mix of fish tacos with fiery pico de gallo, grilled cactus with poblano peppers and queso afiejo, slow roasted pork with Mayan annato seed, (conchinitas) ceviche style tuna tostadas, and golden cornmeal quesadillas shaped in a half moon with cheese and mushrooms, a masa meltdown on your tongue. Gratifying, charming food.

Pulqueria is fairly new, the menu is not as extensive as it will be. Bites are the thing but they are complex, nuanced, indulgent bites. And at our waitresses suggestion we ordered the salsa tree, an Aztec sculpture of small glass bowls each containing a variation of heat, nuttiness, deep smoke, calming avocado which further enhanced each dish and made for entertaining pairings.

The music had been great, esoteric mixed with off track favorites but the volume increased substantially as the evening focus switched gears. Just when I thought it’s over – sated, satisfied, and deaf, out came the delicate churros with a goat milk caramel dipping sauce. When they disappeared, I substituted my finger. And to stop me I guess, shots of chocolate tequila appeared. Ah, you’re never done on the mean streets of faux Mexico it seems.

When you finally ascend to winding little Doyers street, it’s like another movie set. Hard to place yourself in this post Pulque landscape. A delectable otherworldly Mexican getaway in the heart of old Chinatown right there in the middle of New York City. And with Pulque too. Fun.

Pulqueria
11 Doyers Street between Pell / Chatham Square
212.227.3099
Closed Sundays