Allioli, Allioli Everywhere at Macondo
It may sound unlikely, but the best mofongo I ever had was at a place where the server's opening spiel lasted at least five minutes and included the phrase: "Our cocktails are tapas-style." Thankfully, the mofongo was so good that it made up for the small annoyances of a night at Macondo. The starchy ball of garlicky, roughly mashed green plantains sat in a pool of garlic cream sauce, strewn with very large, very crispy batons of fried pork belly.
I had e-mailed a friend to see if she wanted to eat with me at Macondo. Into my in-box pinged her reply: "Do they serve magical-realist food?" Ba-dum-bum. Yes, the restaurant is named after the village in One Hundred Years of Solitude, as the waiter will be sure to tell you as soon as you sit down. Among the other tidbits you will learn from your server before you've even had a chance to look at the menu: The food is tapas-style (and so are the cocktails) because "we want everyone to taste everything." Not only that, but the food you are about to enjoy is "estilo libre Latino"—freestyle Latino cuisine, drawn from all over the Spanish-speaking world. After you've nodded politely for a few minutes—and just when you think the lesson might be over—the server will gesture to the menu and say: "Let's go over a few things."
Going over the menu is actually necessary here, because a good portion of the items listed are not available, including some of the most interesting-sounding ones, like pan-roasted liver with figs or chimichurri and conch in garlic sauce.
157 East Houston Street, 212-473-9900
I don't mean to pick on the waitstaff, because I'm sure they've been instructed to pontificate. And though I cringe at hearing that opening line—"Have you dined with us before?"—at any restaurant, it seems especially out of place Macondo, which specializes in gussied-up Latin street food and is meant to be a casual and fun place to eat.
The menu, by chef Máximo Tejada (also of Rayuela), is divided into categories like empanadas, ceviches, arepas, croquetas, and tacos, with everything else under catch-all headings like "to start" and "a little more." There's a long bar with seating on one side, and an open kitchen and juicing/bartending station on the other. One end of the bar extends out of the restaurant onto the street, which means you can perch on one of the four sidewalk stools, just like you might at a real taco stand. The cabana-like design—with rope netting strung from the ceiling and cradling pineapples and coconuts—flirts with kitsch, but winningly so.
Tejada is at his best when he's working with rich, unctuous flavors. The mofongo is wonderfully over the top—the sort of thing that might kill you, though it will have been worth it. Another successful exercise in richness involves a tiny skillet of truffled polenta enriched with Manchego cheese, capped with a fried egg, and scattered with crisped rounds of chorizo.
We gobbled the shrimp and chorizo croquetas—deep-fried, crunchy nuggets that ooze with a pink, smoky filling. They're served with dollops of sea-foam-green poblano allioli, the Spanish version of garlicky mayonnaise.
The allioli, in fact, is everywhere, flavored by turns with citrus and rocoto chilies, amarillo chilies, and cilantro. The creamy sauce is Macondo's go-to accompaniment, but in the 13 I dishes sampled, I never once came across a classic, taquería-style salsa—or, for that matter, any salsa at all. Macondo is overflowing with richness, but it's missing those bright and zingy notes.
That becomes especially obvious when you order tacos, which are filled with unorthodox gobs of sour cream and queso fresco. The only lighter, acidic flavors you'll encounter are supplied by the diced tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños, which are scattered meagerly and inexplicably across the outsides of the tortillas. At any good taco truck, you'd get chopped onions and cilantro in the taco and pour on the salsa of your choice. Why mess with a proven formula?
Macondo's lamb-barbacoa tacos sneak by on the strength of their luscious, gamey shreds of lamb. But the simpler shrimp tacos are dry and obviously missing something. In the ceviche, the shrimp are again smallish and dry, this time smothered in a tomato sauce that reminds me (though not entirely unpleasantly) of spicy ketchup. But the oyster "afrodisiaco" ceviche was something of a disaster. (When we ordered it, our ever-loquacious server grinned and said with a leer: "Oooh, it's that kind of a night, is it, ladies?" Er, no. ) It turned out to be three bluepoint oysters rather than the six stipulated on the menu; nor were the promised mango and crispy bacon anywhere in evidence. Instead, that trio of oysters was afloat in a pool of more allioli, this time flavored with aji amarillo chilies. (They did, however, manage to charge us the ceviche's correct price—$12.)
The more assertive seafood—like bacalao (salt cod)—is put to better use, such as getting mixed with cream and potatoes and stuffed into bright-red, sweet piquillo peppers. The briny fish is also shredded, mixed with tomato, and used as an arepa topper. The whole pile—arepa, sauce, and bacalao—is crowned with yet another fried egg with a lovely, soft yolk that pools into the bacalao when cut.
Arepas—griddled masa patties—are usually split open and stuffed. At Macondo, the other ingredients are stacked artfully atop one other, fancy food style, which makes some of the combinations—like the one that involves bone-in quail—a little difficult to eat and share. But that quail is delicious, salty and scented with thyme, and paired with figs and spinach on top of the arepa.
I am of two minds about the cocktails. On one hand, they are delicious, unique, and vibrant. On the other hand, they're tiny and cost $7.50 apiece, and I don't believe in tapas-style drinks; if I want to share, I'll ask for two straws. High-minded notions about sharing aside, the upshot is that Macondo is basically charging $15 for what would be the equivalent of one cocktail elsewhere.
Nevertheless, the drinks are fantastic—the best I've had all year. The zanahoria plus gin is a mix of gin, carrot, lime, and pineapple juices, agave nectar, and Cointreau. It's the most gorgeous shade of bright orange and tastes vegetal and sweet. The aquacate plus mezcal blends up honey, avocado, agave nectar, midori, Cointreau, lime juice, and scorpion mezcal. At first, the mint-green concoction tastes gently sweet and creamy, and then the mezcal kicks in at the end for an unexpectedly smoky, up-the-nose aftertaste that is reminiscent of very peaty scotch. The tamarindo plus tequila—combining tamarind with pineapple and ginger, served with a rim of salt and pasilla chile powder—is tartly sweet and compulsively sippable.
Alas, when you take street food off the street, something essential gets lost. That doesn't mean restaurateurs shouldn't play around with arepas and tacos—if the result doesn't possess the immediacy of street food, it might have a charm of its own. In that respect, Macondo comes close to being the perfect place for a boozy, voracious, dressed-up night out with friends. Just calm down and add some salsa.
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