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According to Aztec myth, Mayahuel—the divine personification of the agave plant—invented pulque and pumped the Mexican booze from her 400 breasts, feeding and intoxicating her offspring, known as the 400 Rabbits. Nowadays, the milky alcohol is made by fermenting the sap of several different types of agaves. Revered for centuries, the drink fell out of favor in the early 20th century while its stronger cousin tequila was crowned the official beverage of Girls Gone Wild.
But a pulque revival is occurring in New York thanks to Heather and Christopher Tierney. Continuing their colonization of Chinatown, which began with their bar Apothéke, they’ve revamped the subterranean space next door that once housed Doyers Vietnamese Restaurant. (Although they’ve kept the sign on the building’s facade.) To get to Pulqueria, descend a flight of stairs and pass through an unmarked door to discover a candlelit, thatch-roofed space. A long wraparound bar dominates one of the colorfully tiled rooms, while the other crams in clusters of metal tables. Here, you’ll encounter cocktail enthusiasts and scenesters, especially late on Monday nights, when a weekly dance party called Pollo takes over.
The spot’s namesake is served in its natural glory ($6), but the infusions ($12) are the way to go, especially if overripe flavors aren’t your thing. The Sandia, a refreshing version flavored with watermelon juice and lots of lime, is a good bet. The guava- and jicama-spiked coolers also recall summer picnics, but skip the corn-laced one—too much mescal overshadows the kernels’ sweetness.
If you like more bite in your booze, the green tomatillo michelada ($11) packs a punch of spice and Worcestershire. But top nods go to the Negroni Mexicano ($14). Outfitted with mescal, Aperol, and vermouth, and possessing a rounded, peaty flavor, it’s less bitter than the traditional Campari prep. Knock back two for an instant fiesta!
Yep, it doesn’t take much to get sloshed—especially after you realize pulque is stronger than beer and you’ve already chugged three of ’em. Quell your desire to drunk text your ex by ordering some guacamole ($9) or nutty pumpkin-seed dip ($9). If you’re not into sharing, savor the sopa de Azteca ($10) all by yourself. The hearty tomato-and-guajillo broth is garnished with fried tortilla strips, avocado slices, and a touch of queso fresco—perfect winter warming.
Everyone will also appreciate the plump mushroom quesadilla ($8). A pocket of masa is bursting with fungi and showered with cheese. Pickled pigs’ feet, meanwhile, add a nice funkiness to a tostada, layered beneath a mound of lettuce and crema ($15). Succulent hibiscus flowers are an unexpected treat inside enchiladas basking in a creamy tomato-chipotle sauce ($18). The tomatillo-and-lime-accented suizas are also a worthy choice, filled with tender chicken and topped with plenty of melted Chihuahua cheese.
I would have liked the banana leaf–wrapped fish ($24) more had it not been tilapia or accompanied by tough plantains. And definitely skip the vegetables escabeche ($7, meh) and all the tacos ($11)—especially the tongue one, oily and bland ($12). The food is certainly better here than you might expect, but the libations are what will lure you back.
So there you have it: a new underground cocktail lair masquerading as an old Vietnamese restaurant in the middle of Chinatown, fetishizing a Mexican working-class drink for relatively affluent Americans. The novelty factor of Pulqueria runs high, and with style somewhat trumping substance, it’s easy to view the place as a party trick. But it does make for a pretty fun party.