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Pulqueria early review -- So far so good (longish)

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the hype and basic deal: new bar/restaurant in the old Doyers Vietnam basement space in Chinatown...uber-trendy during fashion week w/ long lines and doorman...introduces NYC to the beverage "pulque" which is a fermented mescally liquid...and serves "authentic Mexico City streetfood"...from the folks who own Apotheke down the street.

i tried Pulqueria last Saturday...was meeting someone for drinks elsewhere nearby later on, so i stopped in around 8pm...there is no sign, except the old Doyers Vietnam sign, and a mellow but unsmiling doorman, who holds a reservation list...after telling him i was planning to eat at the bar, he nodded okay...

Downstairs it's dim and atmospheric and quite nice, imo -- and for people who've been to Doyers Vietnam, a bit hilarious to see it all art-directed into a trendy space...dining room is off to right, not sure if menu is same as the bar, but i think so...

Was easy enough to grab a bar seat at that time, though most seats were full within an hour...the pleasant Mexico-City-born bartender rec'd the tacos, which come two for 11 bucks and they allow you to mix and match from about 8 or so taco varieties...i ended up getting two of these, so tried 4 kinds, all served in small soft corn tortillas

-- grilled tilapia...usually not my favorite fish, but this was great!...fish had nice texture: not mushy at all like tilapia can be...and the various onion, tomato, cilantro had a bright intense flavor that i loved...

-- cochinita (sp) w/ avocado...stewed pork, a nice portion of meat for such a small tortilla, and again great bright bold flavor...incredibly good...

-- carnitas...pork confit...this was fine but not as interesting as the others...

-- chorizo...my least favorite...nicely spiced, but the sausage is crumbled into tiny, slightly burnt pebbles...

While 11 bucks for two tiny tacos seemed a lot, i was quite full after two rounds...the menu also has a "pickled vegetable starter" for only 6 bucks -- i saw a group nearby eating it and it looked wonderful: a large heaping salad of veggies w/ some avocado and cheese on it, so i will definitely get it next time...there are gorditas and some other menu options, but i didn't look too closely at the rest.

Drinks: i tried the pulque straight and served in a little mug w/ ice...not sure exact alcohol content: the menu says "stronger than beer", but i'd guess a good bit less than wine...to me it seemed like slightly-sweet lemonade w/ a faint medicinal agave taste...fine, but i can't say i'm a fan -- switched to wine after the first one...but most people were drinking it in mixed drinks rather than straight...

My only real qualm with the place drink-wise is that the wine pours are tragicomically small -- like literally two ounces of wine!...when the bartender poured the first "glass" i actually thought he was just giving me a generous taste before pouring the rest...and while he did add a little bit later on, it's kind of ridiculous...as we were gabbing about food&drink&Mexico for a while and i was clearly happy and liked the place, i asked him politely about the small-pour issue, he kind of winced, and indicated that the pours are dictacted by the management and that he's not crazy about it either but that maybe it'll change...

Overall First Impression: the best Mexican food i've tasted since i lived in LA...and i think it's a cute dark little spot for a date...will report back as i try more dishes....

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Apotheke
9 Doyers St, New York, NY 10013

Pulqueria
11 Doyers St, New York, NY 10038

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  1. Just thinking of 4 tacos for $22 and calling it "authentic Mexico City streetfood" makes me want to pepper spray the owners in the eyes...Have you been to some of these Mexican places in the Outer Boroughs? They don't necessarily make a cute date spot, but there is some pretty good eating at them- and for authentic pennies on the authentic dollar at that.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Silverjay

      All very true...one is certainly paying for the vibe/scene...and i'm sure the prices would make many people laugh/cry/throw-stones in Queens or the Red Hook ball fields or Mexico City :)

      but as a fun drinks&light-supper date, it's not so pricey -- if two people got those four tacos plus that pickled veggie salad, they'd have spent 28 dollars total food cost before tax/tip for some very tasty stuff...

    2. Can I ask what they charged you for your pulque and how large a pour IT was? I've been dying for a place up here to actually serve it, but I'm used to seeing it served by the bucket and ridiculously cheap. I'm guessing they are shooting for the opposite extreme with ridiculously small and expensive.

      I really want this place to be good because I really miss Doyers Vietnamese (and I like pulque) but I have some serious doubts.

      2 Replies
      1. re: _emilie_

        i'm not sure how much the pulque was, as i didn't look too closely -- and i think the bartender might have comped me the pulque since i was trying it for the first time...it was served in a cute little glass mug, maybe about as much pulque as a very large glass of wine (like 5 oz?)...

        1. re: Simon

          I went a few months ago, and I THINK it was about $6 a glass? the mixed drink pulques are nearly double.

      2. So we went last night and tried a bunch of stuff. We had the requeson gorditas, 4 tacos (tinga, pescado, arrachera, and cochinita pibil), the house chips and pumpkin seed spread, tongue tacos, mushroom quesadilla and nopales salad. All very "antojitos" style. There's not a lot on the menu as far as entrees.

        Pros:
        • The place is gorgeous. Love the design. It was a complete transformation from Doyers.
        • Service was friendly and attentive. I mention this because usually the service at trendy hot spots like this pisses me off, and they were great.
        • The food was all "right". The chef, who I read was previously at La Superior, definitely knows how to make real Mexican food. The chips were definitely made in house (just like when my BF makes them), the nopales weren't slimy, the fried stuff was crispy and not greasy, the cheeses were good, all the flavors and ingredients were just what they should be. There were no failures, and we're pretty picky judges of Mexican food, so that's saying something.
        • The drinks were awesome. Thoughtful combinations of flavors, nothing too sweet even though they were fruity, nice balance and complexity. The cocktails with Pulque were particularly great. We tried all of them except for the corn one, I believe, and I would recommend all of them.
        • I had never had anything like the pumpkin spread - it was great.

        Cons:
        • Holy crap this place is overpriced. The plates are tiny. TINY. They say they are meant to be shared, but stuff was so small you couldn't even cut it to share it. Luckily no one in my group really cared about germs, so we just took a bite and passed to the right, took a bite and passed to the right. Stuff was all good, but my Mex BF was insulted by street food being this small and this pricey. Several things on the menu were also on the menu at La Superior, and were MUCH cheaper there. The BF thinks he could have made our entire dinner for about $20 total. All I can say is, the ingredients are dirt cheap (cuts of meat), the rent has got to be cheap (a downstairs space hidden in Chinatown that used to be super-cheap Doyers Vietnamese), and the place got packed pretty fast -- they should be MINTING money in there.
        • A corollary to the above: while the food was all good, it wasn't THAT good. There was nothing on the menu that we felt we just had to return to have again. Don't get me wrong, I would go again with friends if they wanted to go.
        • This could be a pro or a con - the Pulque has been rendered a bit more gringo-friendly. Its not as viscus as the stuff we had in Mexico, and they serve it over ice, which was a little weird for me. We actually started ordering it without ice, and that felt more right. You can't get pulque anywhere else in town (that I know of), so kudos to them for getting it, but its still painfully overpriced for pulque. The classico (plain pulque) was tiny. It was only $6 though, whereas the flavored cocktails were $12, and the tequila cocktails were more like $15. They DO serve it by the bucket (I didn't see the bucket, but I assume its a very cute, dressed up bucket), but it was like $54!!!! Woh!!! For pulque?!?
        • They are clearly still working out some kinks because they were out of a lot of stuff. Like the pickled vegetables and the chorizo. This was at 6pm on a Saturday.

        Overall, I'm very glad we went because its nice to see someone do Mexican food right. I would be most likely to go again just for some pulque cocktails at the bar, and maybe some small nibbles. And the food was good enough that I'd be happy to try some of the other things that we didn't get to this time (they do have a couple of entrees). But I know we'll spend the whole time bitching about how overpriced it all is, and how the pulque is watery :)

        As an aside, the outfits they make their servers wear were just... weird. Everyone in white braces/suspenders (like we're all going to a ska show after work). Wha?

        -----
        Pulqueria
        11 Doyers St, New York, NY 10038

        5 Replies
        1. re: _emilie_

          cool...thanks for the detailed report...i haven't made it back yet for a second visit, but will probably go sometime in the next week or two...

          1. re: Simon

            Thanks for all of the reviews...going tonight.

          2. re: _emilie_

            Chef from la Superior? No wonder everything is microscopically tiny AND overpriced.

            Luckily didn't eat here, but I guess I'm one of the few who actually liked the pulque. Kind of a mild, herbaceous/grassy flavored, cloudy white drink. I offered a taste to a few people, and I don't think anyone else liked it. But here it was a "steal" at $6 compared to the other drinks...

            1. re: janethepain

              hi jane...i haven't back there since the fall, just because Mexican isn't one of my personal top ten cuisines...but pulque sounds kinda good on these warm spring days...

              and totally offtopic side question: did you ever make it to 15 East for sushi bar omakase?

              1. re: Simon

                Sounds like it'd be hard to get into now with all of the crowds! I went a few months ago, but must have gotten there on the early side. I wonder if any places in Queens offer pulque?

                Haha, no we never did make it to 15 East! But of course when we (eventually) do, we will make sure to get bar seats.

          3. I had a very negative experience there, mostly due to service. I can't remember the last time I left less than 20% tip. I don't want to get into every single little thing here but it started off with the apathetic hostess then following up with some bad service. It took half an hour for our order to be taken. Tables seated after us were getting served their food before us even before our orders were taken. We never received our second round of drinks until we asked twice in a span of 20 minutes. And the worst thing of all was when the waitress took the order.

            I ordered the birria, a braised lamb shoulder dish according to the menu. She asked me how I wanted the lamb cooked. As this was a braised dish, I asked, "Isn't there only one way it should be done?" She replied that you can order it many different ways and that she recommends medium rare. I told her I wanted it the way the cook thought it should be cooked. So she said, "Ok. I'll tell them medium rare." Huh? Did I tell her medium rare? Braised lamb shoulder should be cooked until tender. As I've never been there before I gave her the benefit of the doubt and thought the menu may have been written incorrectly and I would receive something like lamb chops. Actually both the waitress and the menu were wrong as I ended up receiving a half-done lamb shank (not shoulder) that was probably taken off a batch still cooking. I had to saw off the meat with a knife and it was tough as nails. A properly cooked braised lamb shank needs no knife. The sauce was also gross, probably due to it being cooked in pulque. I stopped after two bites. I took the second bite to make sure I didn't get a bad first bite. I took it home as I'm going to try to salvage it by washing it off and braising it for an additional two+ hours in a mole negro. Hopefully the mole negro will cover up the pulque funk. At $26 it's hard for me to let it go to waste.

            The other food was fine, but not worth the inflated prices. I don't think it's fair to compare this to street food in Mexico or the restaurants in Jackson Heights or Sunset Park because Pulqueria is a different type of place. A better comparison would be to Empellon Taqueria, though Empellon's food is higher end. Empellon is a much better value for your money -- and I thought the food was tastier as well as it was prepared with more care. And the service I had at Empellon was very cordial and competent.

            14 Replies
            1. re: Miss Needle

              Sorry you had a poor experience....i actually have not been back since the two (very pleasant) experiences that i had there back in Oct/Nov 2011, just because i haven't got around to it...happy dining elsewhere :)

              1. re: Simon

                Luckily we live in a city where there are a ton of dining options. Mario Batali doesn't have a monopoly here. : )

              2. re: Miss Needle

                I know you to be a fair reviewer and generally extremely nice when it comes to service-related issues, so I trust your judgment on this. It must've been bad.

                On the home cooking front, I hope the mole negro works out. It makes me inordinately happy that you're not wasting the lamb. I know these things are hard to explain sometimes, but why was the sauce so gross? I don't think I've had pulque, before, so I don't have that frame of reference. The way Simon described it -- lemony and slightly sweet -- sounds like an unusual, but doable, flavor profile for lamb.

                What other food did you try?

                1. re: michelleats

                  DH who used to wait tables says that there's usually one table that gets screwed over during service. Unfortunately we were the ones this time. I also hope they train the staff better in terms of food.

                  I've never had pulque before either, but the best I can say is that the sauce had a "funk" about it that was hard to get around. I generally love some funk, but this to me was like eating somebody's sweaty armpit. I think the mucilagenous quality of the sauce didn't help as well. I know that pulque is supposed to be an acquired taste. So perhaps it just didn't jive with my taste buds. But I also think there's a possibility this dish was used to get rid of pulque that has passed its prime.

                  I also tried the pumpkin seed dip, gorditas, cocinita pibil tacos, short rib tacos (a special) and enchiladas suizas. All were fine, and I was surprised that the chicken in the enchiladas was moist as most places tend to overcook the chicken. Unfortunately the bad service and the lamb colored my experience to the point that I will not be giving it another go especially at these prices. One cocinita pibil mini taco and one short rib mini taco came out to $13. Taco shells were about the size of my palm.

                  1. re: Miss Needle

                    I can totally see a pulque-based sauce getting super slimy. And it definitely has a very particular fermented flavor that probably really comes out when they reduce it.

                    That whole medium rare braised meat thing is bizarre though. I think she just had no idea what a braise is, but I'm shocked the kitchen rolled with it and sent you an undercooked dish.

                    1. re: _emilie_

                      Yeah, you must be pretty hardcore to like your pulque! If the sauce is any indication of what pulque tastes like I don't really see myself ordering it in the future.

                      About the braised meat -- I'm thinking that the kitchen staff gets all sorts of crazy requests and they're just trying to please customers. So I don't really hold them liable for what transpired. The waitress just needed to be better trained. You can't order braised meat like you can order a steak. And if the customer instructs you to tell the kitchen to cook it the way it's supposed to be, you shouldn't take liberty to change the order to medium rare.

                      1. re: Miss Needle

                        Well if you have second thoughts and go back, I recommend one of the pulque cocktails. They were really delicious and inoffensive - very fresh and light. The real thing might not be for everyone, but you can probably work your way up to it. I love funk anyway (oxidized wines, kinda gamey meats, etc), so its right up my alley. Thinking about it more, pulque seems more like something you would have in a marinade, not a sauce (because of the slime factor), but I'm no chef.

                    2. re: Miss Needle

                      Wow, pulque sounds so gross I want to try it, now. Sweaty armpit in liquor form. I also have to wonder whether Simon's sweaty armpits are somehow lemony.

                      Thanks for the down-low on this place. It's been demoted on my list of places to try, esp. since Empellon is much easier to get to for me.

                      1. re: michelleats

                        Its really not that gross. Definitely try it! Its like a homemade beer made out of cactus. It just should never ever cost what it does at Pulqueria.

                        1. re: _emilie_

                          So does pulque have a lemony taste? Or perhaps michelleats may be on to something with Simon's pits.

                          1. re: Miss Needle

                            I wouldn't have said so, but maybe a little. I think of it as more aloe-like, a fresh green flavor, but that has started to turn. Not that it tastes like Kombucha or a funky Basque Sidra, but a similar little twang. They might flavor theirs a little, so it could actually have lime in it - they go crazy with that in DF - guava, strawberry, etc., but I don't recall it tasting flavored when I was there. I prefer the flavored stuff actually, so its like a nice fresh liquado (that started to turn), instead of a glass of aloe juice that started to turn. If you have had Peruvian chicha its like the Mex version of that, but green-tasting rather than corn-tasting. Similar texture. Again I think chicha's more palatable mixed with fruit in their frutilladas. I can't do the chicha straight. Too... saliva-y.

                            1. re: _emilie_

                              Thanks for the thorough explanation. The way you describe it actually sounds pretty good. But I think I've been a bit traumatized by the lamb experience (I know I'm being dramatic). Perhaps in a few years I'll give it a go, maybe trying it with a flavored one to start with.

                        2. re: michelleats

                          While BO isn't my cup of tea, one of my friends thinks a man's BO is so sexy. So I guess I can see the appeal of that to some.

                          1. re: Miss Needle

                            I bet even your friend doesn't like it with undercooked lamb.

                  2. All I had there was cocktails and the prices were seriously extortionate.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: chompchomp

                      Went there last night for drinks

                      The plain pulque for $6 is v interesting: like diluted brandy with agave vegetalness

                      If there are 3 of you, get the pineapple bomb. DELICIOUS.(Whole hollowed out pineapple, rum, coconut cremen, thai chilli salt, very more-ish)

                      Can't say anything about the food.