At La Palapa, A Mix Of Mexican Foods

La Palapa exteriorGloria Chung La Palapa, 77 St. Marks Place.

The East Village has any numbers of spots which would be recognized in New York’s more prosperous neighborhoods as restaurants. Most of them, however, are closed during the day. No conspiracy is at work: the Village’s day-time population of students, freelance writers, unemployed graphic designers and denizens of the street cannot afford nice lunches. A very different, and more elegant, crowd, descends on the neighborhood at night — and the nice places open up. Fortunately, for those of us who work here, and care, perhaps all too much, about our lunch life, there is La Palapa, at 77 St. Marks Place, just east of First Avenue.

I discovered La Palapa on one of my daily rambles, and was at first put off by the fact that, though it seated at least fifty, absolutely no one was inside. Still, I thought, it looks so nice. And the menu seems so terribly nuevo Mexicano. What could be wrong? Nothing, I soon learned: La Palapa serves an extremely refined cuisine. I once asked, as diplomatically as possible, “How do you guys survive?” And Drew Doallas-Baxter, the day-time wait staff, an amiable stringbean with a hipster chin-beard and a skinny braid, explained that the restaurant packed them in at night; and since Domingo Torres, the indefatigable chef, comes in at mid-day anyway, they might as well open up for the occasional lunch-time stray.

La Palapa has dishes familiar from the Mexican mass market — quesadillas, chile rellenos — as well as much more recondite items, such as chalupas con chorizo casero, little rafts of corn mesa topped with guacamole, black beans, queso fresco, crema and, as they say in the more rarefied establishments, “house-made” chorizo. They serve tamal de vagra, a meltingly tender catfish, not at all gamy as catfish often is, wrapped in a corn husk. The shrimp taco has tiny Pacific shrimp topped with pickled shredded poblano — a sharp tang against the gentle little carrier of ocean flavor. The delicate mixture of spices, and of hot and sweet, and of creamy and crunchy, leaves your palate feeling like it’s had a perfumed bath and then been wrapped in a terrycloth robe.

La Palapa entrywayGloria Chung The interior of La Palapa, where owner Barbara Sibley seeks to do justice to Mexico’s embrace of the mestizo, the mixture of cultures and civilization.

La Palapa is the offspring of Barbara Sibley, an ex-pat who grew up in Mexico City, studied anthropology and, removed to New York, wanted to open a restaurant which did justice to Mexico’s embrace of the mestizo, of the mixing of cultures and civilizations, and offered New Yorkers a different take on a cuisine they thought they knew. “It’s a way of breaking stereotypes,” says Barbara. “It’s not just some guy with a hat sleeping under a cactus.” La Palapa, in short, is not Taco Bell. This would seem obvious enough, but apparently the stereotype is so ubiquitous that it requires forcible repudiation. Barbara says that La Palapa, whose name refers to the thatched canopy which Mexicans traditionally erect on the beach, combines “a Mexico City taqueria and what we ate at home.” A tortilla at a proper taqueria, to take only one example, is a soft round, not a crunchy pocket, like it is at you-know-where.

Now that we’re on the subject, did you know that tomatoes, chocolate and vanilla originated in Mexico? If not, you should think about what that means. As Barbara points out, no Mexico, no Italian food. No Mexico, no dessert except. . .desserts not worth eating, I finished for her. Are you aware that Mexican cuisine includes Arab and Indian influences? Are you still thinking about that guy in the hat, or has Barbara made her point?

Let me take over again and say a few more things about the cuisine at La Palapa. The fried plantains are served with queso fresco and crema, a slightly sweetened sour cream. The plump, juicy slices of plantain zipped into their crisp jackets and then dipped into the cooling crema make for one hell of a sensation. Ditto the green pumpkin seed and tomatillo mole, which comes lapped around a grilled chicken breast. I’m also very fond of the ginger ale, which I guess you could call “house-made,” though I’d rather not.

Oh, and lest you chintzy lunch-eaters recoil at the dizzying prices, which run to $13 or so for an entrée, La Palapa offers a three-course lunch menu — soup, taco, quesadilla — for $12.95. So go ahead — live a little.

La Palapa, 77 St. Marks Place, 212-777-2537.