December 25, 2006
MY DINNER AT PAPATZUL
Mexican is a food you don’t just happen to have for dinner. It’s a food you seek out on purpose; it's inspired by a specific craving. You wake up, you’re going about your day, and sometime around 4 or 5 when you are thinking about what to do for dinner, you realize you want a margarita and you want some good Mexican. Maybe you crave fish from Vera Cruz and you plan on going to Pampano. You want a great chorizo and egg brunch, so you head over to La Palapa. You’re in the mood for some fresh and zippy guac and a guilty pleasure known as the frozen pomegranate margarita and you race over to the bar of Rosa Mexicano. There’s a smoky spicy margarita and a plate of melting Oaxacan braised goat on your mind and so you make a bee-line to Suenos. Well, allow me to fill you in on your next craving: braised duck enchiladas in almond mole ($18). You’ll find them at Papatzul, a terrific new family-owned Mexican spot on the corner of Grand and West Broadway.
In days gone by, Papatzul was the food that the Aztecs made for their Spanish conquerors. They thought the Spaniards were Gods, and they prepared dishes of pumpkin mole and called it Papatzul, or Food of the Lords. As it turned out, the Spaniards weren’t quite lords—but the food is still quite special, as it is here in Soho. Conceived by chef Thierry Amezcua, a native of Coyoacan, a small delegacion (borough) in Mexico City, the menu of classic Mexican fare is graciously gentle on the wallet and fits seamlessly with the convivial setting.
Up front you’ll find a lively bar backed by a wide brasserie-style mirror, with sunny walls painted the color of terra cotta and decorated with original Mexican masks. Walk past the partially open kitchen and you’ll find a spacious back dining room of exposed brick painted white, filled with hefty wooden tables tucked into banquettes and a rustic communal table down the center of the room.
When Steven, Debbie, Kiri and I had dinner there last week, we started out as they do in Mexico City with a Sangrita—a shot of tequila (El Tesoro for me), a shot of Sangrita (think Bloody Mary mix) served on a cute wooden tray with a hill of sea salt and a few wedges of lime. Our waitress explained the method of conquering the tray of booze: Take a sip of tequila, then a sip of sangrita, bite the lime and lick the salt, repeat. This method is meant to open the appetite and the palate, she offered. And she is right. You also really get to taste the tequila by sipping it slowly. The chaser gives you a jolt of tomato and spice. The lime is a burst of cheek-puckering tart juice, and the salt is the element that really ties the whole thing together. Order a few while you look over the menu, along with a molcajete (those big stone bowls) filled with some of the best guacamole in the city ($8), and you’ll get this great slow buzz that doesn’t overwhelm, just makes you feel warm and happy from the inside out.
While we negotiated the menu and decided what we would have for dinner, a group of 15 or so friends took their seats at the center communal table, and began passing pitchers of margaritas ($27), molcajetes of guacamole and fresh spicy salsa. One of the couples brought their baby, a tiny little peanut who looked to be about 3 months old. He was placed on a banquette behind the table in a little car seat where he stayed, lulled by the din of the happy crowd, sleeping soundly. As people passed him by to head to the bathroom or to go home, they all stopped and cooed at him. He didn’t stir. He was quite content. I was slightly alarmed that his parents had their backs to him, and seemed to be concentrating more on their dinner than their son, but the margaritas and the meal that follow, does demand a certain amount of attention. So I guess I can understand. I guess.
Anyway, we the baby-less followed up our sangrita with a round of fresh and tart margaritas served in wide squat tumblers. I had several of these. I was flying to New Orleans the next day and decided I’d like to begin my vacation early. And then we began to explore the menu. Fresh corn masa cups ($7) were first up. These are nicely corny, like warm dense polenta cups. They filled up with tangy goat cheese, and piled high with roasted mushrooms and diced zucchini ($7). What’s not to love? Ditto the trio of quesadillas ($9) stuffed with poblano peppers, chorizo, wild mushrooms and cheese, folded over like calzones, and then fried so they are crisped on the outside, warm and cheesy on the inside. Why are quesadillas not made like this more often? We also loved the ceviche ($10), served in a sundae glass overflowing with plump shrimp and slivered scallops, dressed in citrus juices, stocked with finely minced chiles, nice fresh chunks of ripe avocado, and a little dice of red onion.
For dinner, we had several entrees to share. The first was a budin al pasilla ($18), a tortilla casserole layered with black beans, pasilla chiles, shredded chicken, and thick crema served in a terra cotta cazuela. It’s sort of like a Mexican lasagna and it’s what I imagine mothers all over Mexico City serve for Sunday supper. The flavors were fabulous—rich pasilla chiles braised down to a sauce that was spicy but in a soft warm way, not in a fiery blow-smoke-out-your-ears way. My only problem with the dish was that the shredded chicken was quite dry. I am not sure why Thierry doesn’t use dark meat which I think would help make keep it moist. We also went for a fish special of the day ($M/P)— thick fillets of silky sea bass cooked in tomatoes, chiles, potatoes and peppers in a Vera Cruz style was quite simple, but also amazing in its layered flavors. If I had been given a pile of fresh warm corn tortillas, I would have made my own fish tacos.
The duck enchiladas, as I mentioned earlier, are a dish that you’ll think of and crave days after you’ve left the restaurant. Served in a puddle of dark, rich mole made with almonds, chiles and chocolate and about 25 other ingredients ($18), these corn tortilla crepes are filled all the way up with braised duck and crowned with crema. We passed the enchiladas around, swiping more bites when possible, and were tempted to lick the mole clean from the plate when we were done. We refrained, and instead just licked our fingers.
As we headed out late in the night, we passed the table of 15. They were still eating and drinking, and baby was still sleeping. I wonder if years from now, that little peanut will be all grown up, a young man living in the city, who has a mysterious and constant craving for duck enchiladas in almond mole. Hopefully someone will be good enough to steer him in the right direction—to Papatzul.
Papatzul is located at 55 Grand Street, corner of West Broadway, 212-274-8225.