In The Midnight Hour: Pata Negra
Open Until: 12:00 am, Tue and Sun; 1:00 am, Wed-Thu; 2:00 am, Fri-Sat
Drinking Until: close, 7 days
Food Until: half hour before closing, 7 days
As restaurant neighborhoods go, the East Village is the equivalent of a Honduran tilapia farm: packed to the gills and in danger of polluting the ecosystem (in this case, with middling restaurants). But Pata Negra, sandwiched into a narrow space on 12th Street between the takeout and proper restaurant locations of mac-and-cheese stalwart S'MAC, has proven itself as a sleeper in the tradition of Spain's best tapas bars, and the area is better for it. Wallets and waistlines, not so much.
Raised tables and stools populate the dining room, whose decor falls somewhere between modern and rustic with a simple gray-on-brick color scheme interrupted by the occasional framed curio. The evening we dined, the space was dominated by a betrothed couple, their photographer, and a friend. As the server ceremoniously poured our bottle of Isastegi Sidra ($15), the flash popped. "Beautiful! Now look at her like you did the first time you made love." Let's hope their relationship is as tart as this fizzy Basque cider, though nowhere near as dry; the scent of apples more prominent than the flavor, which sips smooth but swallows electrified.
The restaurant takes its name from the renowned, black-hoofed Iberian pata negra hog, prized for its incredibly marbled flesh thanks to a strict diet of acorns, and true to form, the pedigreed pig (as well as its lesser brethren jamon iberico and jamon serrano) shows its snout all over the abbreviated menu. You can get a sampling of pata negra ham for $40, but being on a budget, we opted for the lomo ($18), slices of cured pata negra loin that, despite their lack of fat content, were no slouch in the "velvety" department. Served with toasted bread drizzled with olive oil, the meat melts into a sea of porcine unctuousness with a hint of smoked paprika.
Rounding out the menu is a selection of more traditional tapas, including tortilla española, garlic shrimp and blood sausage. Pisto con cabra ($8), a Spanish version of ratatouille topped with creamy goat cheese, seemed like a lighter counterpoint to porkier orders, but the dish turned out to have a depth of flavor as rich as Daddy Warbucks. The boulder of potato, tomato and summer squash exhibited near-perfect seasoning. Slicked with olive oil, the vegetable hash gets a boost from the tangy cheese, soft as thick Greek yogurt from the heat of the vegetables. Its sourness offsets the dish's earthier elements and places it firmly in "repeat order" territory.
A degustacion of patitas ($7) showcases the cured meats in exemplary toast point pairings, from serrano ham with tomato and manchego to that silky pork loin topped with Garrotxa cheese and garlic mojo. Just as good were two non-pig toasts, one with piquillo peppers and the briny-sweet anchovies known as boquerones, and more piquant goat cheese, this time tempered by a thick swipe of sweet quince paste. For the portion and price, the degustacion is by far the best way to grab a taste of Pata Negra's kitchen on the cheap.
For those who lament that pigs have the mental capabilities of toddlers, fear not. We're confident that both toddlers and pigs understand the self-evident righteousness of pork fat.
About the author: Zachary Feldman is a former debutante and current freelance writer. He makes hand-crafted, small batch bitters under the moniker Bitters, Old Men.