Papatzul: Under the Radar and Underappreciated

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Photographs by Robyn Lee

Papatzul

55 Grand Street, New York NY 10013 (near West Broadway; map); 212-274-8225; papatzul.com
Setting: Casual, pleasant, but I wish our server hadn't decided that watching ESPN was more important than serving us
Compare It To: Dos Caminos, La Palapa, Mi Cocina
Must Haves: Guacamole, Ceviche, Fish Tacos
Grade: A-

New York's food radar is so powerful I used to think it was impossible for any restaurant to fly under it. The food media (both old and new) contributes to this state of affairs, as does our obsession with discovering the latest bit of deliciousness to be had here. But every once in awhile, a restaurant like Papatzul opens, and somehow, some way, the food intelligentsia doesn't notice.

Papatzul opened more than two years ago. Chef-owner Thierry Amezcua had been cooking in serious restaurants like Savoy and Il Buco for ten years when he decided to open a restaurant to serve the food he grew up eating in Mexico City.

I remember reading about it in a Village Voice blurb, but I wasn't spurred into action until my friend Steve, a fellow with solid taste buds, sent me the following email:

Let me take up the cudgel for an authentic nondescript place in the heart of trendy Soho on Grand Street: Papatzul. There's nary a mention on Serious Eats, and it doesn't even have a Zagat number rating. My Cali friend, who transplanted to New York years ago, routinely bemoans the awful Mexican food here, especially the typical mish-mash of Tex-Mex, Cali-Mex, Nuevo Mexicano, and Mex-Mex. He grudgingly went along, and we loved the cantina.

When we raved to the waitress, who was on her first week, she said she'd tell the chef. Owner-Chef Amezcua came over and was beaming. Said he'd bring us some homemade spicy salsa.

Well, the place was crowded (a lot of eye candy, by the way, befitting its location), and we paid the bill, which was pretty gentle for these days. As we left, the chef ran out and grabbed us: "I forgot the salsa, you can't go, I will send you dessert." And we had a lovely dulce de leche ice cream with great pecan brittle ("palanqueta," as I read in the New Yorker review).

Chef said we need to go back for the flautas and beef enchiladas. Some serious cooking is being done in there, and I'd be interested in reading your thoughts if you or your staff ever get a chance to go down there.

Steve's note certainly piqued my interest. What did I find?

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Phenomenal guacamole ($9) made in the now de rigeur stone mortar and pestle. Creamy, salty, and perfectly seasoned without garlic (Amezcua is on a mission to disabuse Americans of the notion that guacamole must be made with garlic), it's served with crisp house-made tortilla chips that are mercifully not greasy.

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The ceviche ($10) was just about as good. Made with shrimp, scallops, coriander, and plenty of lime juice, it came in a cocktail glass with guacamole underneath it. It actually reminded me of the ceviche at the Red Hook ballfields, but the scallops took the whole thing up a notch.

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Having just come off a fish taco jag for my Pinche review, I hesitated before ordering the Baja-style fish tacos ($12) here. I shouldn't have. They are crunchy and delicious, and come with shredded lettuce instead of the traditional cabbage. I think Pinche would win a fish taco throwdown with Papatzul, but Amezcua's fish tacos are good enough that I can't say that with absolute certainty.

Since the chef recommended the beef enchiladas and flautas to my friend, I ordered them. The chef is right in a big way.

The beef enchiladas are stuffed with tender braised beef, a sort of Mexican pot roast. They're topped by a complex green tomatillo-laced sauce that I slurped with a spoon.
Flauta ($11) are perfectly fried tortilla cigars stuffed with chicken and mushrooms and topped with shredded lettuce, crema, and spiked pasilla salsa. They come three to an order. I could have eaten ten.

My wife described soft tacos with seared hanger steak, sautéed onions, peppers and melted cheese ($12) as a Mexican-style cheesesteak without the roll (they give you tortillas instead). An apt description, though this dish, called "Alambre de Res" on the menu, kills most cheesesteaks I've eaten in and outside Philadelphia.

A whole red snapper is prepared Veracruz style, with olives, tomatoes, and capers. The whitefish was perfectly grilled, though the sauce underneath it was too chunky.

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Quesadillas ($10) came three to an order (beef, mushroom, and shrimp) with two sauces, and, as you can see here, looked more like empanadas. They were all tasty enough, but their fried masa casings were greasy.

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Budin al pasilla ($17) made with chicken, tortillas, beans, cheese, and crema, turned out to be the ultimate Mexican chicken casserole, complete with small chunks of dry chicken breast.

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The restaurant's namesake dish, Papatzul ($17), are Yucatan enchiladas stuffed with soft-boiled eggs and covered with two sauces—pepita, made with pepitas, and chiltomate. The eggs were closer to hard-boiled, and the dish as a whole lacked the dimension and character of almost every other dish I tried here.

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Slow-roasted duck enchiladas in a rich almond mole ($20) read beautifully on the menu, and there was plenty of duck, but somehow the dish in its watery sauce never came together.

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Salsa freaks should note that Amezcua also offers a salsa tasting on the menu ($3.50). Five different salsas come on tiny plates. Some were hot, some were sweet, and some were more interesting than delicious, but at a paltry $3.50, they were well worth trying.

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Chocolate and chili pot de crème with cinnamon ice cream ($8) was supremely chocolatey and had just the slightest burn in each spoonful that was taken care of by the cinnamon ice cream. Perhaps even better were the churros $8), perfectly fried, dark-brown doughnut twiglets that you happily dip into a light caramel (cajeta) mousse.

Just because the chattering classes haven't been yapping about Papatzul doesn't mean it's not a very good restaurant. Go and see for yourself. For sophisticated, satisfying earthy Mexican food, Papatzul is hard to beat. My friend Steve is batting a thousand, at least so far.