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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Mother’s Milk

Madre Mezcaleria

Dinner. Mezcal. Because that’s our wheelhouse these days. But very luxe having it at the new & still evolving mezcal bar – Madre Mezcaleria. The younger sibling to the much venerated El Atoradero next door. Already over fifty selections with many more to come. Plus you sip & savor with your chapulines & orange slices grazed with sal du gusano. In lay person’s terms we’re talking dried grasshoppers & a little ground worm in the orange slice spice. Spare but warm, charming atmosphere, great music a la Mexico and a small list of nice bar snacks with a raw bar to come. If you need to flavor your mezcal further.

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The delightful Fior Silvestre, a sublime combination of mezcal, grapefruit and St Germain. Bet you can’t drink just one.

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Two of the many bottles offered. The one on the right is of the  Mezcal de pechuga (breast in Spanish) variety. These are made when a finished mezcal is again distilled with local fruits, grains, nuts and the surprise of surprises – a raw chicken or turkey breast hung over the still, soaking in the vapors while also adding to the end result of the mezcal’s flavor. My favorite bottle on the left is safe for the vegetarian mezcal fan!

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The aforementioned grasshoppers and spice. Let the sip of mezcal lay on your tongue for a moment, then a nip into the orange slice and a few bits of the ‘hoppers popped in your mouth. Don’t rinse. Just repeat.

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Toothsome, tasty chips with a great guacamole and a rich black bean dip. The food advantage here is that it’s from the awesome hand of chef Denisse Lina Chavez who again reigns supreme next door. She opened this together with partner Noah Arenstein completing their mini Prospect Hts Mexican empire.

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Excellent bites to accompany all that mezcal. Shredded chicken tostadas with chipotle above and tuna tostadas below. The bar is destination worthy on its own but also works for a drink or two while you wait for your table next door.

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An unassuming oasis along the avenue. Streamlined and uncomplicated inside. The bar seats a baker’s dozen and there’s one banquette with table seating in the back.

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There’s also tequila, wine and beer in case someone joining you is not a mezcal aficionado. I have a feeling they’ll spend a little time here though and experience a sea change.

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Tiles brought from Puebla by the chef give a soupçon of fiesta, of color but always leaving the focus on the glass in front of you.

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Parting shots. Our charming bartender offers and enjoys a shot with customers as you leave. A lovely gesture especially when you need to be armed for the cold. Or even just life.

Madre Mezcaleria

706 Washington Avenue by Prospect Place

718.399.0706

Open daily 5pm – 2am

 

 

La Contenta. And Yes I Am.

La Contenta

We’ve all heard the east vs west coast argument for decades. Sigh. LA claims best Mexican food north of the border and cites NYC as a re-fried bean wasteland. New Yorkers have long declared that our Mexican restaurants are getting better all the time. Really. Swear. Then everyone huffs and puffs, and slide chips into their guacamole in stony silence. But the sulky years are behind us! As it happens, New York City has crept up the ranks and is now sitting pretty on a few posher Mexican spots as well as more elevated neighborhood places. Maybe all the marauding criminals that Donald Trump eschews are actually cooks! Ha.

Gourmet focused restaurants like Empellon Cocina, Cosme, and Mission Cantina have changed the landscape for good. And of course Empellon also has the more casual Taqueria and Al Pastor, Black Ant is doing innovative fusion, Fonda is a good neighborhood destination, El Presidente/Tacombi have the low key well covered and Zaragoza has the always fab taco take-out counter. Of course I’m leaving out dozens of great choices, but my focus here is about one delightful lower east side coup de grace to the Mexican dining scene…La Contenta.

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Definitely cozy, originally the home of my all time favorite seafood restaurant Tides, it seats around 16 people at tables plus a few stools along the bar. The spirit of the place somehow makes it feel convivial not cramped.

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Luis Arce Mota, chef/owner and his partner, Alex Valencia, an artist of the cocktail world, have done a spin on classic Mexican highlighted by French techniques. And that’s evident. Poached lobster in a chile morita butter sauce, Confit of chicken legs in mole sauce, a Queso Fundido with goat cheese, black olive tapenade, chilies and a guacamole with pomegranate & pumpkin seeds. The drinks are infused with various chilies and the list includes off the path agaves that are just finding their way onto menus around town with favorites like the nutty tasting Sotol, and the lovely to sip smokey Bacanora. There’s a healthy list of mezcals/tequilas and creative twists on standbys like the Prietoni, his take on the Negroni made with raicilla, campari & sweet vermouth – fantastic. Or my very tasty hibiscus margarita. And custom made cocktails are always on offer.

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This isn’t the standard Puebla fare that infuses most mainstream joints around the city. Mota comes from Mazatlan and started his career here as a dishwasher at Carmines. He cooked under the tutelage of some top chefs at various NY restaurants like Bouley and then went to study at Le Cordon Bleu. Love that. He opened Cafe Condesa, then Ofrenda to success before selling his stake in both. Now he has the charmed and supremely good La Contenta. Alex Valencia holds an impressive mixology pedigree from a few cool places in town like Little Branch and also managed and designed the cocktails for both Yerba Buena’s, oh I had some truly inspired drinks there.

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Delicate but crispy Fish Tacos in a very spicy and oh so good chipotle aioli.

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Braised Short Ribs in a cascabel and chipotle BBQ sauce with mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts and crispy tortilla chips slid right off the bone. Juicy and fragrant.

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Tostade de Cangrejo, a fresh, light, spicy version of crab tostadas. Blue Crab meat with a celery root puree and of course, chilies.

No photo of the Shrimp Veracruz Enchiladas in poblano sauce but a definite highlight and a must order.

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Nachos with pickled vegetables, loaded with cheeses, crunchy, perfectly spiced plus gorgeously arranged chips, the sunflower of nachos.

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I really like it here. The food is on point, the staff is thoughtful and engaging and the baked chips are among the best I’ve ever eaten. Bad news for me as I can’t stop but good news for chip lovers. They’ve done a lovely job in the space of making it all fit. Like an oversized jigsaw puzzle surrounded by the faintest imitation of a Keith Haring mural.

Ended the evening with a shot of an extraordinary tequila that our very dear waiter thought I would love. I did love it. But damn if I can remember what it was. I’ll be sure to write it down next time. There will so be a next time.

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La Contenta
102 Norfolk Street between Irvington / Delancey
212.432.4180
Monday-Wednesday 5pm-12, Thursday-Saturday 5pm-2am, Sunday 5pm-11pm
Happy Hour daily 4pm-7pm

Sometimes You Just Wanna Be Held…

Tacombi /Fonda Nolita and Puddin’

There is nothing like comfort. It comes in many forms of course and we all have our go to panaceas, but tried and true late night dining that coddles, soothes, tells you that you’re compelling, funny, gorgeous is still available on the mean streets of NYC. (Okay – they’re not so mean, but they are frustrating with people texting as they walk every which way.)

So, the other night, along with some out of town friends looking for inexpensive, tasty and late-ish, we swung through a zocalo, NYC style. The still compelling and amusing Tacombi and the gorgeous Puddin’.

Tacombi has been rock steady on the taco and tamale front for about 2 years now. Much has been written so no need to sound forth. Real masa, open kitchen, taco prep in a vw bus fresh from its Playa Del Carmen beach home now parked inside a big garage, huge skylight, crazy early to late hours, and finally offers sake / sangria spiked Mexican drinks, beers and table service. Phew.

My all time favorite will remain the Corn & Poblano Taco. Sweet, spicy, a beach in a cornfield. The tacos aren’t huge but 3 seemed to be more than satisfying. The Baja Fish Taco is perfectly crisped but the fresh sea breeze still shines through. I do wish they’d use less sauce and let me add from the table assortment of spicy and sweet squeeze bottles if I’m so inclined. The Corn Truffle Tamale is redolent of musk and a campfire. Loved. Friends had the Corn Esquites with toasted corn, lime & chipotle mayo – a french kiss in a cup. The Al Pastor De Puerco, the Pork Belly and the Short Rib Barbacoa are beautifully put together and bring forth the essence of Mexico.

Hard to believe you can be taco sated, infused with a south of the border spirit, feeling this good as you sit around rickety metal tables in NYC and on metal chairs that seem inches away from collapse, but you can.

While we were still enjoying the guacamole and excellent chips, someone at the table said, if I could top this off with butterscotch pudding, I’d be a happy man. Done. Can’t vouch for permanent happiness but for that night, a last bit of solace – it worked. Off to Puddin’ on St Marks.

I’m an old My-T-Fine girl. Chocolate pudding on the stove, skin forming across the top. Heaven. As my tastes developed I learned to make the real thing, appreciating more sophisticated versions but I think somewhere in my heart remains a soft spot for my six year old palate. Well now, boy howdy to Puddin’.

Creamy, pleasure, childhood, all wrapped up in a glass case filled with house made puddings. Butterscotch, Banana, Coffee, Vanilla, Rice, Coconut etc and the Classic – layered butterscotch with a whipped cream center and chocolate pudding base. I could go six feet under happily if I could bring the Caramel Machiato with me, a combo of Chocolate and Coffee puddings with brownie pieces and a salted caramel sauce. Buh bye My-T-Fine. Or I could make do with the Banana Cream Dream made of real banana pudding, graham cracker crumbs, fresh banana cake and a soupcon of whipped cream. I’m open.

One spoonful of anything and it’s Calgon take me away time. It’s just you and warm puppy love. Plus they have Stumptown Coffee (yay!) so you can stay awake to have more pudding.

Tacomba / Fonda Nolita
267 Elizabeth Street
917.727.0179
open for breakfast through late night cravings

Puddin’
102 St Marks Between Av A/First Av
212.477.3537
open til 1am M-W and then til 2am

*Header photo by Angela Carbonetti / http://www.angelacarbonetti.com

South of the Border, Down Hi-End Mexico Way

Empellon Cocina

Oh man, oh man, oh man – this is good. You know how when you first glance at a menu and before you’re actually reading it, half a dozen dishes practically dance off the page and make nice with your tastebuds? These creations get into your head, they toy with you, entice you, offer themselves to you for a grin and yet you haven’t yet said yay or nay to the guacamole. Which by the way, the answer should be yay. As in yes but also the yippee kind of yay.

It’s a spare but creamy cozy atmosphere with slightly arresting art on the walls, comfortable lighting, fun soundtrack (albeit a bit loud), and a sparkling white kitchen that is delightfully visible (though they might want to diminish the glaring light streaming forth, a problem in the wrong seat). That being said, it all serves as a cool relaxed background for the big draw.

The fun begins with the cocktails. The Empellon Manhattan is fabulous if on the wee side. Hence one adopts the more the merrier style of drinking almost immediately. And why not! The margaritas are exceptionally unique. But I went for a mescal flight as advised by our fabulous server, Hannah. She was our guide to the best of the best on the menu.

And it seems best to share a bunch of plates with the table, then get a little something just for yourself. There are favorites, no doubt about it but they cover a wide range so anyone should be happy. Pork lover to vegetarian. I wouldn’t consider leaving here without having had the aforementioned guacamole. Studded with pistachios, accompanied by a pistachio salsa, you can also add a variety of additional salsas for an extra price. They offer spicy, smoky, nutty, kicky, thickly green, pepper dominant, the seven dwarves of the salsa world. We did that on round two. While their version is something special on its own, it’s the masa crisps that are extraordinary, happily replenished and word up – bring a big bag to sneak them home with. Ha. Just a fantasy.

Other must haves…
-Roasted carrots with Mole Poblano, Yogurt & Watercress

-Beets with Pickled Maitake Mushrooms, Sorrel & Sikil Pak
-Peeky Toe Crab with Parsnip Juice, Crab Flan and Smoked Cashew Salsa

-Ruby Red Shrimp with Crispy Masa, Sea Urchin Mousse & Lettuces
-Melted Tetilla Cheese with Lobster Tomate Frito & a Yucatan White Sauce
-Squid with Heirloom Potatoes, Chorizo Mayonnaise, & Black Mole

-Scallops with Huitlacoche, Rutabaga & Masa Polenta

-Lamb Sweetbreads with Longaniza Parsley Root & Salsa Papanteca
-Rabbit with Shiitake-Poblano Stuffing & Green Chorize Gravy

The crab was magnificent, layers of bubble and flan and crab, so delicate but blankets your tongue with flavor. The scallops were thick and sweet, the shrimp and uni were almost a palate cleanse in their startlingly fresh brine. And I have to say our waitress suggested the melted cheese and lobster, warning us to be open. Brilliant idea. Wrapped up in a soft warm taco, it was just enough indulgence to make you feel reckless but not overcome! Everything sings, is bright and clean but nuanced with combinations of ingredients that haven’t met before but cling lovingly to each other with contrasting flavors and textures.

Back to the drinking…I started with the Las Nahuales Reposado, the smoky one. Sipped, with a tiny bite of fresh orange slices in between tastes. Followed by the Fidencio Madrecuixe for it’s deeper tobacco notes. Then the spicy Mano Negra Tobala and with dessert there were two choices. I loved the chocolate version that my companions had but my advisor had me on a different path so I finished with a mint infused Scorpion Tobala Jouen. Fantastic every step of the way.

Say it’s your birthday even if it’s not, the special birthday flan is not to be missed. Even the birthday boy self avowed flan hater at our table kept it close to only his spoon. But every dessert is terrific so age doesn’t matter!

Chef Alex Stupak also has Empellon Taqueria across town, his more casual and lovely first foray after having left WD-50 as the legendary pastry chef. Cocina though takes his love for Mexico and gastronomy to exciting heights, a perspective I don’t think we’ve seen in NYC. That in itself is rare and wonderful. As is the food.

Empellon Cocina
105 First Avenue between sixth/seventh street
212.780.0999

*Header photo by Angela Carbonetti / http://www.angelacarbonetti.com

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