145 East 39th Street, New York, NY 10016 (b/n Lexington and 3rd; map); 212-865-5800; salvationtaco.com
Service: Friendly, efficient
Setting: Bright and lively, incredibly spacious, smart design touches
Must-Haves: Pork belly salad, lamb naan taco, cauliflower taco, sweetbread taco
Cost: Expect around $20pp without drinks
Grade: Recommended; highly recommended for the area
Recetas deliciosas to transport your tastebuds south of the border.
April Bloomfield is one of the most respected, most exciting, and most consistently interesting working chefs in New York. First known for her inventive, animal-part-heavy pub fare at The Spotted Pig, and then for her equally animal-part-heavy menus at The Breslin, she's got a style all her own, and a knack for opening (with partner Ken Friedman) restaurants that folks just love. Most downtown hotspots eventually cool off; not the Spotted Pig, after nearly a decade. Most restaurants in an area not known for its food (29th and Broadway*) would have a hard time drawing consistent crowds; never the Breslin.
*I refuse to accept the neighborhood "Nomad."
But the news that she and Friedman were opening a casual taco joint in the lobby of a Murray Hill hotel was so surprising that I initially didn't quite register the news. ("Mexican in Murray Hill?" Deleted email. "Wait—from who?") Unlikely neighborhood, cuisine, vibe, part of town.
The news that she was collaborating with Roberto Santibanez of Brooklyn's Fonda on the tacos, and with Sam Anderson, formerly of the Hotel Delmano, on the cocktails, seemed promising. Still, truth be told, I had my doubts. There's my general worry about nontraditional taco joints: whether the flavors will come together as a composed little dish, or whether it's just stuff-on-a-tortilla. Whether any new taqueria can nail tortillas, because 90%+ of the places in New York that try, don't. Whether a chef's third or fourth effort will succeed without their constant attention—Salvation is an all-day, breakfast-to-dinner joint, and a busy woman like Bloomfield sure isn't in that kitchen every day. And some early reports from trusted sources weren't all promising.
That said, I've now had several excellent meals at Salvation Taco—enough to put my fears to rest and give it a wholehearted recommendation.
It's not without flaws, many of which have to do with sizing and pricing, or at least the perception thereof; more on that later. But there's a lot to love. Nearly every taco incorporates elements you wouldn't expect—the powdered toasted pumpkin seeds and roasted habaneros in a mayonnaise lacing a fish taco, the pomegranate molasses in a salsa that adorns sweetbreads—and, more importantly, that all work together. There are enough offbeat touches, including chicken feet and pig's ears, to remind you that Bloomfield's behind the menu. It's a fun space, strikingly colorful in places, lower-lit and moody over the bar, with a ping-pong table and back and enough raw space to make you forget you're in Manhattan.
I'd bet that a Murray Hill taqueria could've gotten away with standard-issue margaritas, but Sam Anderson's cocktails go far beyond that. Many of the drinks lean either on agave spirits (including lesser-known ones, such as Bacanora) or Mexican-inspired flavors (chipotle flavors honey in one; coconut horchata appears in another). I loved the almost tea-like, winter flavors of the American Firing Squad ($12; Laird's Applejack, chamomile-infused rye, Amargo-Vallet, and instead of grenadine, a spiced Malbec-pomegranate syrup). On the boozier side, go for the smokiness and the slight chile bite of the Sonora Old Fashioned ($12; Bacanora, chipotle honey, silver tequila, grapefruit bitters). I'm willing to wager Salvation Taco ranks in the very best cocktail spots in the neighborhood.
Onto the apps. Chicken feet ($4) and pig's ears ($7) would both make great drinking snacks, if you're into that sort of thing. (I certainly am, but some of my dining companions were a little put off by the ears' resemblance of, well, ears.) Both are prepared simply, dusted in salt, pepper, and pasilla powder.
More conventional diners should opt for the chips and guacamole ($9), the chips with a fresh, just-out-of-the-fryer crunch, the guacamole lively with jalapeño, cilantro, and tomatillos. (I wish it weren't served in an awkward ramekin that not only makes for difficult dipping, but also makes the portion appear disappointingly small.)
Two salads, both substantial enough that the term "salad" seems like a disservice, disappeared from our table almost immediately. For the vegetarians, a pumpkin poblano ($9) number, tender chunks of squash with equally tender pepper slivers wound through, with a grapefruit salsa and a bay leaf and garlic crema. (I was tempted to ask for tortillas to mop up the crema-grapefruit-poblano bits left remaining in the bowl.) For the meat-happy, a pork belly and pineapple salad ($10), crisp-tender chunks of deep fried confit pork belly with mint, cilantro, and similarly sized pineapple cubes, in a spicy salsa dark enough that you're not sure whether pork or fruit awaits you. And if you're there for lunch, you should really consider a torta; the confit chicken thigh torta ($8) was my favorite, sultry dark meat with avocado, black beans, lettuce, radishes, and a compellingly earthy adobo sauce made with ancho chilies and chocolate.
But we're really here to talk about tacos, right?
Good news first: tacos depend on tortillas, and in my visits, Salvation has nailed 'em. The masa comes from the highly respected Nixtamal in Corona, Queens, and the tortillas (one per taco, and slightly thicker than the corn ones you'll see in a double-wrap) are patted by hand and cooked throughout service on a comal. Tender and crisp-edged and not dry in the slightest, they're reason enough to make a visit.
Best of the tacos? Perhaps the sweetbreads ($4 each), coated in a batter made with chickpea flour and fried, topped with a salsa that includes roasted red onions, garlic, and jalapeños, along with pomegranate molasses. Or perhaps the roasted cauliflower ($3), the vegetables tender and accented by a curried crema, a fried curry leaf to accent.
Or the not-really-a-taco Moroccan lamb breast on naan ($4). The miniature naan base works better than I'd expect, but the star here is the lamb, spiced and roasted before it's crisped up on the plancha, with pickled cucumbers, mint, and yogurt—decidedly Middle Eastern in flavor (I felt like I could've eaten this off the street in Turkey). Does it belong on a Mexican menu? Who knows; no more or less than a kimchi pozole or a bowl of chicken feet, I'd argue.
Honestly, there wasn't a bad taco in the bunch. I'd happily down a plate of the Korean BBQ ($5), with kalbi, pickled radish, kimchi, furikake, and chojjang to spice it up. Or the fish taco ($5), tempura-ed striped bass with a "Mayan mayo" that translates to one spiked with powdered toasted pumpkin seeds, roasted habaneros, chopped red onions, cilantro, and lime. Or the closest to traditional, an Al Pastor ($3) with belly, shoulder, and leg meat, marinated and spit-roasted with pineapple.
A lot of complaints I've heard about Salvation Taco relate to the prices (which, I'll venture to say, will be the case with anywhere tacos cost more than $1.50 apiece). Yep, they're little; maybe 4-biters—and when a single one is presented to you on a plate, it's easy to think, "Wow, that's all $5 gets me?" I wonder if the perception would be the same if you got a $16 plate that gave you 4, or whatever. But I appreciate the flexibility their pricing allows you. I will say that $20/person in food cost should be enough to fill up just about anyone. They're small tacos, but not skimpy, and little bits of lamb breast add up.
Though I'm rarely on East 39th Street, I can imagine myself finding reasons to come back to Salvation. Dinner for a group, say, where some people want to eat, some drink, and some play ping-pong. For a bar dinner of a cocktail and two lamb breast non-tacos. For a destination when I'm in Murray Hill or Midtown East with nowhere to go. I'll admit that I had my doubts about Salvation Taco, but sweetbreads and pork belly salads won this girl over.