The only thing New Yorkers enjoy more than a good secret is leaking it to the entire world as quickly as they can. Such is the case with Apotheke, a popular speakeasy on Chinatown’s Doyers Street framed by a photogenic “Chemist” sign. It’s no surprise, then, that its next venture would realize a similar fate.
Back in December, the guys from Apotheke decided to expand next door and open Pulqueria, a pseudo high end Mexican restaurant in a basement formerly known as a Vietnamese sandwich shop. ‘Sandwiched’ between Apotheke and Nom Wah Tea Parlor (see what we did there?), it has all the makings of a success. If you can believe it, I do not always eat Asian food, so I was excited by the chance to dine in a restaurant without Sriracha sauce on the table.
Now that the secret is out, the restaurant’s facade is no longer as unassuming as it once was. You’ll find a copy of the menu posted outside to point the way. Head down the stairs and make your way through the nondescript door ahead of you. A left turn will take you into the bar, a right into the dining room. Both are extremely intimate, offering perhaps the most inspired decor you’ll find in town.
Though you may come for the food, atmosphere, or just the story itself, you’ll stay for the drinks. Pulqueria is best known for Pulque ($6, pictured right) from which the restaurant derives its name (if you somehow couldn’t tell). A milky, tart drink made from the fermented sap of the agave plant, it’s one of the hardest to find in the city. It also boasts a long, storied history in Mexico, where it is believed that Mayahuel, the goddess of the maguey plant herself, first mixed the stuff. It’s certainly not for everyone, but I found it to be one of the more delicious and exciting drinks I’ve had in the city.
If you’re looking for more of a “speakeasy” vibe, explore Pulqueria’s cocktail and margarita selection. The Mexican Mule ($14) will be your summer drink of choice, featuring vodka, irresistible watermelon puree, ginger beer and lime. For a more traditional margarita, try the Mango-Cilantro, a devilish blend of chil-rubbed mango, cilantro, lime and tequila. Once you’ve pumped enough of the stuff into your bloodstream, it’ll be time to eat.
I must begin by apologizing for the quality of the above photo. The nicest part about an atmospheric, dimly lit restaurant is everything except its photogenic properties. You’ll have to trust me that these are much more beautiful in real life. Anyway, we came to Pulqueria for tacos. They offer an incredibly eclectic variety, from vegetarian to seafood to your traditional, kindergarten land mammals. They’re expensive, $11 for two, and while they’re delicious, would not be worth the price, were it not for the venue.
Start with the Pescado, packed with impeccable red snapper, tomato crema, fennel and jalapeno. As far as the food goes, it was the start of the evening, and is something I’d eat every day for lunch if my circumstances allowed it. The Chorizo Rojo, stuffed with house-made red spiced chorizo, is your best bet if you’re looking for a ton of strong, concentrated flavor. It stacks up well against the chorizo tacos found in your favorite Brooklyn taco trucks, so give it a shot.
Finally, for the wannabe storyteller, order the Verduras, which features grilled cactus, pobland peppers, mushrooms and queso chihuahua. If you’ve never had cactus before, don’t scare yourself away. They’re vaguely reminiscent of a green pepper, were you to remove the skin and cook it until it’s nice and soft.
If you spend as much time in Chinatown as I do, Pulqueria is a breath of fresh, salty, tequila-kissed air. It’s one of very few non-Asian restaurants that calls itself home in the oldest part of the neighborhood, and together with Apotheke, is holding its own very well. While the food and drinks can be expensive, the venue’s understated decor and exciting location makes a trip well worth your time.