I don't recall the last time I ate at La Palapa. It may have been summertime, because the front windows were thrown open to St. Marks Place and I remember sitting outside amidst the street's high spirits. Now this is La Palapa's 14th winter since Barbara Sibley, a native to Mexico City, opened the restaurant. The good intentions (and much of the good food) are still there, but without Selby in the kitchen, some of her passion for Mexico's cuisine can get lost in translation.
Tamales aren't the most visually appealing of foods, but that's never been the point. Talavera would have made Tamales de Rajas ($8) far easier on the eyes, but it wouldn't have saved the wet mash of masa that didn't cook properly or the fried cheese that resembled tofu more than Cotija. Rajas, strips of roasted poblano peppers, offered their subtle, ambiguous spice for a well-seasoned, just lackadaisically prepared, tamale.
Queso fundido, while a lactose-intolerant's worst nightmare, is a fairytale for those of us with steel stomachs. La Palapa offers two: Rajas Poblanas ($11) and Chorizo Casero ($12). Both are a joy to eat, but the homemade guajillo chorizo harmonizes in a June and Johnny sort of way with rich, mild queso Chihuahua that stretches into strings when pulled from the hot cast-iron pan.
Something green is needed to balance the fundido's richness. So grilled cactus, cut in such a way as to reflect the diminutive suffix in Nopalitos ($8), radishes of the same rough-chopped nature, and a handful of what turned out to be mesclun was ordered. Lime juice and queso fresco enhanced the freshness, but the salad seemed thrown together in haste, a clean room with a mess behind the closest door.
Cochinita Pibil ($19) is a portrayal of Sibley's commitment to authenticity. Pork marinates in achiote and citrus before it's wrapped in banana leaves and roasted at low temperature. The way those leaves whisper flavor into the meat is nothing short of phantasmic, and the wrapping bars fugitive moisture from getting too far. Achiote, a vibrant spice paste common in southeast Mexico and neighboring Belize made from a base of annatto seeds, is complex and layered, sweet and sour. It ceaselessly seasons the pork and its mission is carried out all the way through the pork's jus.
La Palapa opened a near decade before the city's obsession with corn tortillas and the blissful flavors of Mexico took root. A meal at La Palapa offers a cook's tour of Mexico, and even with our comparative bounty of nouvelle Mexican restaurants these days, it's still not easy to come by. You may go from the Yucatán Peninsula to Baja California, but that's a long trip, and the tour guide needs to be well rested less the impatient traveler grow weary.