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Authentic Mexican Tapas? Just a Nibble

by Laura Grimmer
Friday Feb 15, 2013

Does anyone else sometimes feel like the literal translation of "tapas" could be "How do I figure out how many of these little tiny plates of food will constitute an actual meal?"

Unless you’re in the right hands, you may be disappointed by your choices. But fear not. At Antojeria La Popular, a new tapas joint in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, a satisfying experience awaits.

First things first: La Popular is authentic Mexican, not your typical Spanish tapas bar. It’s the newest project from Regina Galvanduque and Andres Mier y Teran, the Mexican husband and wife design team behind GLVDK and Mexican-fusion restaurants like Taka Taka (Mexican-Japanese) and Vive La Crèpe (French).

With La Popular, they’ve combined their creative and pragmatic design principles with their favorite foods from home, and the result is a real treat.

Street Snacks Reinvented

In Mexico, "antojeria" is like a street snack, a little nibble you’d typically find from a cart. In Spain, where dinner is traditionally eaten quite late, the small plates we associate with tapas are eaten as a pre-dinner snack with wine.

Think of Antojeria La Popular as both. It’s a snack. It can be dinner. A place you want to be whether it’s the middle of the afternoon or late at night.

A few steps off Spring Street (convenient to the 6 subway station), La Popular looks like a cozy, friendly taverna. Checkerboard floors, wood bars and tables, and an open kitchen welcome you inside to rub shoulders with your fellow man. Happily, one of your fellow men is the talented young head chef, Andres Figueroa.

I attended the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) with Chef Andres, where he was informally voted the most likely to make a name for himself as a chef. After tasting some of his handiwork, I’d say he’s well on his way.

Chef Andres is a Texan by birth and Dominican by extraction, but says his current biggest influence is his wife, who is Mexican. I think his classical culinary skills, cultivated at stints at Blue Hill and Bar Boulud, may have a little something to do with his success, too.

Working with the owners, Chef Andres has refined family recipes to put out a wide array of creative, fresh and evocative plates.

I went with the chef’s recommendations for a tasting menu to fully sample La Popular’s four basic food groups: Ceviches (food cooked by marinating it in citrus juices), Botanas (little snacks), Mar (from the sea) and Tierra (from the land).

But first, I ordered the agua del dia - the non-alcoholic drink of the day. I was rewarded with Horchata, a traditional Mexican drink made with rice, milk and vanilla and sprinkled with cinnamon (optional). Light, with that strangely compelling blend of dairy and spice, I quickly ordered a double.

For the first dish, I ordered something I’d never tried before - sirloin ceviche in a dish called Distrito Federal (all of La Popular’s dishes are named for places in Mexico).

Yes, that’s right. And it was awesome.

Cured in fresh lime juice, the sirloin was unbelievably tender with a great mouth-feel, and it was served in a smoky tribilin sauce and accompanied with warm mini-tortillas for wrapping.

For my Botanas, I got Tabasco, which is a dreamy, creamy bowl of roasted poblanos and fresh corn swimming in crema and Chihuahua cheese. The combination of the cream and the slight warmth from the poblanos was addictive, and it was all I could do to not ask for a spoon in addition to eating it wrapped with the warm tortilla.

From the Sea

From the sea, Chef Andres’ recommendation was another first for me: Raw fish. (Embarrassing as it is to admit, I don’t eat real sushi.) So I cringed when I saw the Guerrero, with its bright red raw tuna coddled in a Serrano mayo with mango and habanero peppers served in a wafer-thin slice of jicama.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, eh? I almost cried it was so good.

The jicama "tortilla" is genius - slightly pickled to make it pliant, its crisp crunch was the perfect foil for the tangy spice of the mayo and the cubes of jewel-tone tuna.

A second seafood offering, the Sonora, is also excellent. Tender shrimp oozing with bacon essence and avocado in a spicy Chihuahua cheese and chipotle mayo sauce served in a petite pita.

Lastly, the Zacatecas brought me full circle back to sirloin, deliciously cooked this time with tomatillo, avocado and a tangy, tart salsa verde to compliment the queso Chihuahua and meat.

I was nearly undone. Seriously. The flavors were unique and unexpected. The spice was mild with the kind of alluring heat that is balanced beautifully as part of the holistic dish. The Horchata paired beautifully with every bite, supporting my belief when pairing food and drink that what grows together goes together.

Next page for insider tips for dining at Antojeria La Popular and other tapas recommendations.


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