A lone stalk of blue corn sprouts from the sidewalk on St. Marks Place, directly in front of La Palapa. The hapless stalk, transplanted from San Miguel de Allende, is a cure for Barbara Sibley’s homesickness.
The same could be said for her restaurant.
Sibley was raised among artists in Mexico City, and since moving to New York, she has been pining for the refined dishes of her youth — food more lyrical than those belly-bomb burritos New Yorkers associcate with Mexican cuisine.
To open La Palapa, “the shack,” Sibley joined with Margarite Malfy, a chef who has traveled extensively through Mexico. The women share a passion for all things Mexican, from pottery to poetry. They also share kitchen duties.
Sibley is eager to talk about her Mexican childhood, and it’s this personal touch that can make a meal here so pleasant despite some kitchen inconsistencies.
No sooner have you taken a seat (preferably in the back patio) and a sip from your blood-orange margarita, the waiter will suggest guacamole and chips. Say “si.” It’s among the best I’ve had (just the right note of cilantro and lime). Then take a virtual hike through the Yucatan desert, by way of the menu, where you encounter: epazote, cactus pads (nopales), poblano chilies … tequila.
I’ve always dismissed quesadillas as kid-food. This one made with wild amaranth greens and queso fresco (farmer cheese) tasted all grown-up, as did the quesadilla stacked with sauteed mushrooms, garlic and lots of brazen epazote — a pungent wild herb that tastes like fresh coriander. Both versions left me with grease on my fingers, but also with a newfound respect for the humble tortilla melt.
Boston lettuce tossed with grilled cactus slivers, in a zesty lime dressing made for a lively salad and a perfect introduction to the prickly plant. Predictably, a salad starring dull jicama was a siesta of a starter.
Only the bold need apply for the vagra tamal, a made with catfish, cactus pads and more epazote. The dish comes from the heart of Mexico, where take catfish are steamed whole in corn leaves.
Skip the shrimp ceviche, loaded like a mule with capers and olives. Instead order the calabacitas, Mexican squash slow-baked with chipotle cream and queso fundido.
Don’t eat to many chips because entrees, or platos fuertes, have heft. Dishes come with hillocks of rice and beans but leave room for more satisfying sides of grilled spring onions or chayote (the gourd of the Aztecs) baked in a spiced cream sauce.
La Palapa’s chicken enchildadas area standout, presented in a spicy stew of tomatillo sauce and topped with queso fresco and hula hoops of milky-sweet white onion. Slices of duck breast in a sesame-mole sauce sounded alluring, but the mole was thin and underdeveloped. A brooding Oaxacan mole, however, draped like a mantilla over (overcooked) pork tenderloin, was far more mysterious.
Diego Rivera could have mixed the color for the lush, cilantro-green, pumpkin-seed sauce bedding a cod fillet. Soaking in tequila and lime does nothing for me, but the marinade worked wonders for a juicy grilled skirt steak.
“Tres leches” cake seems to be the dessert del dia. At La Palapa, it’s capped with pillowy meringue icing, in a wedge so large and tall, I thought a cruise ship was pulling in. The cake was good, but needed a longer soak in the milk. Kahlua flan with a dash of vanilla was flawless. Make sure to try the summer corn ice cream, either topped with a goats’ milk caramel sauce (cajeta), or solo, to truly appreciate its golden kernel flavor. It vanished almost as fast as the margaritas.
Sibley and Malfy like to say their palapa has “ghosts”: Both Leon Trotsky and poet W.H. Auden once called the building home.
It’s easy to see why they’d hang around.
I know I’ll keep coming back to the shack.