Pulqueria is in a basement in Chinatown.
By BETSY ANDREWS
Chinatown; (212) 227-3099; pulquerianyc.com
Eating Mexican food in a basement sporting Vietnamese signs on an alleyway in Chinatown is part of the worldly appeal of Pulqueria, from Heather and Christopher Tierney. Along with these siblings’ cocktail den, Apothéke, it’s luring crowds to sleepy Doyers Street.
Some of the fervor is deserved. The Tierneys borrow bar tricks from Mexico City, where pulque, a pre-Columbian elixir (and old barfly’s poison) is seeing a trendy revival. Milky with a mellow kick and a kombucha-like funkiness, this fermented agave sap proves a tasty base for fresh-produce infusions, from watermelon to jicama, some laced with smoky mezcal ($12 each).
The chef, Nacxitl Gaxiola, formerly of La Superior, offers friendly, mildly authentic accompaniments. Tiny masa gorditos burst with crema and Mexican ricotta ($9). Red onions, raw and fried crisp, deliver a boost to tuna tostadas ($14). A tiered selection of salsas — earthy fried peanut and chipotle; swarthy pasilla chile, beer and pulque; bright, brisk tomatillo — is elevated, indeed ($9). Tacos made withgrilled nopal, mushroom and poblano are charismatic enough to stand up to any of their meaty compadres, even the sensational housemade chorizo ($11).
Mr. Gaxiola has a way with vegetables. His grilled cactus salad is an edifying heap of contrasts: beefy nopales, creamy avocado, sharp onions, salty queso Cotija ($11). There are so many pretty veggies atop the pickled pigs’ feet ($15) that the trotter gets lost in the mix.
Other dishes lack edge. The pigs’ brain quesadilla ($11), like the pork shank ($32), is willfully underseasoned, though the latter comes with sides of salsa and salt.
Service, too, can underwhelm. It’s better in the bar, which is charming with its thatch roof, patterned tile floor and D.J. Even after 10 p.m., when the mellow fiesta becomes a full-on Gotham party, stools are freed up soon enough, and you can sit and tackle the sikil pak ($9). Rugged and unabashedly umami, this knockout Yucatecan pumpkin-seed spread pulls no punches.