by Eric Asimov
The prevailing image of Mexican cooking in New York is hard to shake: heavy, fatty dishes laden with thick layers of cheese and swimming in refried beans. But in the last few years a fleet of new Mexican restaurants has sailed in, bringing a lighter, subtler cuisine that is showing off the regional glories of Mexico rather than the familiar one-dimensional margarita-fueled Tex-Mex dishes.
La Palapa, a bright and cheerful restaurant in the East Village, is the latest to present this alternative view. The owners, Barbara Sibley, who grew up in Mexico City, and Margaritte Malfy, who has traveled extensively in Mexico, share kitchen duties and are devoted to the cooking of Diana Kennedy, the Mexican food authority, who is a family friend of Ms. Sibley’s.
The fascinating menu that results shows off all sorts of complex flavor combinations based on traditional Mexican ingredients like the pungent herb epazote, avocado leaves, cactus pads and, of course, the many varieties of chilies, each with its own expression of flavor and heat.
A moist cod fillet ($17.95) is served in pipian verde, a sauce based on ground pumpkin seeds that is quite different from similar sauces I’ve tasted. It’s quiet and subtle, given its color by cilantro and extra taste by a mild chili that complements the cod perfectly. By contrast, a special one night of pork, puerco en pipian verde de Morelos ($12.95), was livelier and more powerful, befitting the more robust meat. This sauce was made with a spicier chili as well as tomatillos, giving it a vibrant edge.
Though appetizers are the least interesting part of the menu, they are satisfying. Tacos ($4.50 for two) are authentically Mexican, made with soft corn tortillas, and are also artful, with fillings with spicy chili-rubbed chicken, shrimp in a smoky adobo sauce or mild poblano chili with epazote and onions. Ceviche ($7.95), made with fish, shrimp, olives, capers and tomatoes, is not as sumptuous as the Peruvian version, but it was fresh, with pleasing flavor contrasts. Guacamole ($5.95) is chunky and well spiced, and a jicama and pineapple salad ($7.95) is a pleasantly refreshing. Perhaps the most unusual appetizer is a delicious tamal ($8.95) made not with corn, as is traditional, but spiced catfish and soft pickled cactus pads. The more conventional tamales ($7.95) were dry and dull, possibly because they were filled with chicken breast rather than pork.
The real excitement comes with the main courses, like thin slices of duck breast ($16.95), fanned out in a wonderful sesame mole with a rich, wonderful sesame mole with a rich, almost malty chocolate flavor given added dimension by the underlying chili heat, served with savory rice and refried black beans. Chicken enchiladas ($11.95) are almost stewlike, in a soupy tomatillo sauce that is very spicy but tangy as well, while roast chicken ($15.95) is covered in a mild sauce that is given an anise edge by avocado leaves. Shrimp are served with garlic cloves ($15.95) that are cooked down to a soft golden mush that never overwhelms the shrimpy essence. I can’t remember seeing a pork chop as big and meaty as the Yucatain-style chuleta en salsa pibil ($17.95), full of flavor and served with chayote, a squash as sweet as fruit.
One drawback of the new breed of Mexican restaurants is that they have taken back the expected freebies, like chips with salsa; these cost $4.50 at La Palapa. And when the level of the food rises, I want the slection of wines to rise, too. La Palapa’s list needs more bottles geared toward the food.
For dessert, ice creams ($5) are more Ciao Bella than Mexican, but are they good: rich Mexican chocolate and a spicy chili-laced peach sorbet. They also accompany other delicious desserts, like an empanada stuffed with cinnamon-flavored rice pudding ($6). I don’t know whether this is authentically Mexican, but it’s so goodit doesn’t really matter.