Imagine if the diner as we know it—an institution run by Greek immigrants seeking to reproduce the standard Middle American menu of 50 years ago at a low price point—had evolved as a Latin phenomenon instead. That’s the premise behind Coppelia, a new 24-hour restaurant near the corner of 14th Street and Seventh Avenue from chef Julian Medina of Yerba Buena and Toloache.
In service of the concept, the place looks like a diner—after you’ve dropped a hit of acid, that is. The color scheme is wacky, with frosting-green and Oompa-Loompa-orange wall treatments, teal-blue storm shutters, and light baffles evoking the tropics with overlapping images: conga drums, lemons, pansies, pink flamingos, and, somewhat randomly, silhouettes of Josephine Baker. An altogether pleasant place to sit if the interior decoration doesn’t make you a bit queasy.
The food runs from inspired to terrible, and there’s no real correlation between authenticity and goodness. In any well-thought-out operation of this sort, shortcuts will be made with ingredients, and so certain things turn up again and again. Presented as a damp heap of shredded pork atop a pile of yuca, Cuban roast-pork pernil ($14.95) also appears smothering one of several hamburgers, and in two sandwiches. The Dominican soup sancocho is transformed into Mexican mondongo by simply tossing tripe into the broth, and pickled purple onions garnish nearly everything. None of this is necessarily bad, but if you know the originals the menu seeks to replicate, Coppelia’s renditions can seem wan by comparison—just like a real diner’s.
Parsing the 70-item menu, one discovers dishes attributable to Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba, Spain, and “Caribeno”—which can mean either Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, as if the café refuses to take sides. In a Mexican vein, the huevos rancheros ($8.95) are unlike any version found in the city’s Pueblan cafés: A pair of fried eggs sun themselves on a brittle tortilla raft, smeared with salsa verde like high-test suntan lotion. Artful squiggles of crema proclaim, “We’ve been to cooking school, and now this will cost you twice as much.” Underneath, black beans blend with white rice in the Cuban Moros y Christianos (“Moors and Christians”), as if Fidel had just invaded Mexico City. In spite of its dual provenance, the dish is extremely tasty.
Equally good is a miniature Argentine parrillada ($15.95), or mixed grill, featuring skirt steak, chorizo, and a dense hunk of short rib. The herb-dusted fries are fine, but the steak wears a tiny wad of green chimichurri not nearly pungent enough. This cook-up represents the Friday special on a rotating weekly calendar, in emulation of the many Cuban coffeehouses that downtown NYC once harbored. The nearest remaining—now overlaid with Puerto Rican influences—is La Taza de Oro, nearby on Eighth Avenue. Drop by and compare the ancient greasy spoon with Coppelia before some real-estate baron banishes it from the neighborhood. Hands down, the best dish on Medina’s menu is chaufa ($10.95), a Peruvian take on Chinese fried rice that hits all the right flavor notes.
Coppelia’s bill of fare abounds in snacks that should go well with alcoholic beverages when the liquor license arrives, supposedly in late May. Five-cheese croquettes ($2.25) appear as tiny brown marbles, with an even browner habanero dipping sauce. Delicious! Name-checking a Mexican fast-food chain that specializes in buffalo wings, Alitas 100 fuegos ($8.95) alters the American bar-food standard through introduction of a mild chocolate flavoring, which might be OK, except the sauce has none of the complexity of mole poblano, and is so thickly applied it becomes repulsive. Another diner classic, mac-and-cheese, has been reconfigured with lardons and chicharrones. Not a bad idea.
While the apps, snacks, sandwiches, and entrées are a mixed and sometimes motley crew (though everyone should be able to find a dish or two to love), the desserts are first-rate. Presided over by the hapless pastry chef Pinchet Ong—who has been routed from two prize venues in the last couple of years—the pastries, sundaes, and sweets are emphatically worth coming back for. Representing riffs on Latin favorites, the most spectacular is torrejas de oliva ($6.50), a Spanish olive-oil loaf that arrives with smooshed blackberries in a lake of olive oil, meaning you’ll never get a dry bite. Soaked in coconut milk, his tres leches cake is similarly dope, and there are 14 other options on the menu. Posing the question: Is Coppelia the first diner ever to have fantastic desserts?