El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette (100 Stanton Street, 212-260-3950) opened as a coffee shop in September, but it was four months before the bright, narrow space tackled savory food with a lunch menu.
Before there was a full menu here, there was coffee from Counter Culture, which has enough background information online to please the Portlandia set, though the team insists its allergic to snobbery. “The people who work here are genuine and nice,” restaurateur Nicholas Morgenstern says. “They’re not coffee jocks or stuck up or aloof.”
Still, care permeates the rest of the drinks, too: The low-sugar seltzers are carbonated in-house. Gin-less fizz is made with cucumber-limeade, tarragon, and juniper. In the evening, there are five beers on tap.
And now, those drinks pair to food: Morgenstern and head chef Gerardo Gonzalez, who both came from Goat Town a few blocks away, officially rolled out the luncheonette last Thursday.
At first glance, the menu seems all over the place, but that meandering sensibility grew out of the impulse to cater to every desire — and the healthy eating philosophy at the airy counter-only farm-to-table oasis shouldn’t deter people looking for an indulgence. Cashew grits with 18-hour braised pork and a slow egg and a housemade duck confit and cherries hand pie make the list alongside kale salad with shaved almonds and granola, which you can order with soy or almond milk. “The food’s clean in flavor and with an amazing boldness so you can leave feeling not super heavy for the rest of the day,” Gonzalez says. “No food coma!” adds Morgenstern.
Here, there’s no wall between the kitchen and the customers, the chef explains, so by chatting people up at the counter, he learns what to cook. “It’s kind of cheating,” says Gonzalez. “It allows me to write an all-inclusive menu for the neighborhood and take care of them.”
The people-pleasing mentality gets customers clamoring for their favorites. “They’re like, ‘When are you going to make that gluten-free chocolate apricot cake?'” Morgenstern says. Other hits have been the polenta citrus cake and sticky sweet potato bread, which gets studded with Aleppo pepper-spiced pecans and drenched in salted caramel. “People just go bonkers for that,” Morgenstern says.
Gonzalez isn’t afraid to part with gluten or dairy for some of his dishes. “It lends to the creative process,” Gonzalez says. “I have to find these ways to do things without crutches or bacon or butter.”
But he doesn’t want to scare off people who think that all healthy food is bland either. “I don’t advertise [certain dishes] as vegan specifically,” he says. “They taste really great, which can open up the potential audience.”
And with Morgenstern’s help, Gonzalez is taking on some new challenges. Before working together at Goat Town, Gonzalez did his extern from CIA at General Greene in 2009 where Morgenstern was the owner and pastry chef who served his “Philly Style” Greene Ice Cream from a cart outside. Gonzalez hadn’t baked before this venture, so he looked to Morgenstern, who provided his book of recipes that he’d tested and cultivated over the years. That helped the duo put items like banana bread on the menu, a baked good they wanted because they wanted something that would go well with both coffee and beer. “People look at it and they see the sesame seeds on top, and when they taste it, it’s balanced with a sweet note and an umami thing going on,” Morgenstern says. “There’s tahini in the recipe. We nailed that recipe from the first time. The texture is moist, and it’s the right kind of crust.”
El Rey is open from Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. Luncheonette items are served from 11 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.
Hit the next page for a few photos.