The menu at El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette (100 Stanton Street) enumerates the supporting ingredients of the octopus salad this way: “black bean” puree, hominy salad. Chef Gerardo Gonzalez isn’t being cute with those quotation marks. Far from it. These are white beans, tinted ebony with squid ink and fermented black garlic, and their murky essence complements the coins of octopus tentacle that scatter over them like beach debris. Braised in a white-wine broth fortified with tomatoes, citrus, fennel, and bay leaves, the octopus takes refuge under bright hominy salad made with raw tomatillos and corn nuts. A mouthful of the dish tastes earthy and light, unfamiliar but exhilarating, unlike anything I’ve ever had. The same goes for most dishes at this breezy, whitewashed Lower East Side café, thanks to the efforts of Nick Morgenstern (Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream), partner Sam Wessner, and Gonzalez.
Slight and soft-spoken, the stubbled chef mans a space the size of a phone booth to plate his food, having done the rest of his work in a cramped basement prep kitchen. “That’s why so much of our food has cold and raw elements,” he tells our table. The tight quarters also seem to influence Gonzalez’s visual style: Ingredients huddle atop one another, creating a pleasant chaos on the plate as well as the palate. Space issues aside, the menu jibes with the chef’s San Diego upbringing. He channels a laid-back SoCal ethos through provocative recipes that are self-assuredly effortless in their healthiness, leaning on the heightened flavors of fruits, vegetables, spices, and herbs. Gonzalez bakes flatbread spiced with savory zaatar for his daytime menu. At night warm and wobbly burrata cheese sits in raw green mole made from greenmarket herbs laced with sesame seeds and burnt onions, with two bulky triangles of the flatbread plunked into the dairy puddle.
As a diner, there’s no surprise more gratifying than when, after enjoying a food for most of your life, a restaurant shows you that you’ve had it wrong the whole time. For me it was El Rey’s pork cracklings — or rather the lack thereof. I’d always associated chicharrones with pig skins fried shatter-crisp, which is why Gonzalez’s vegan “chicharrones locos” hit me like a flavor freight train. Inspired by a Mexican puffed-wheat street snack called duros, the craggy chips best their porcine counterparts under a deluge of bold accompaniments like cilantro, red sorrel, cheesy nutritional yeast, and a trio of sauces: pickled pineapple-habanero, cashew cream, and chamoy (a sour plum condiment). Crunchy and vibrant, they’re a welcome departure from the porky packing peanuts I know and (still) love. The hot sauce and cashew cream show up on a plate of papas bravas, the potatoes draped with slices of pickled pineapple, evoking al pastor.
Proteins, like that octopus — at $17, the priciest dish on the menu — appear sparingly. When they do show up, they’re treated to the same finesse the chef bestows on his produce. Gonzalez tames oily Portuguese sardines by pairing the boned fillets with whipped Greek-yogurt butter, radishes, and carrot-top salsa verde, tapping his Mexican roots by layering the entire colorful display on a tostada. It looks like an Earth Day parade float crashed into a Mardi Gras krewe devoted to bait fish and tastes like a paean to brine, crunch, and cream. Chorizo, El Rey’s lone red-meat offering, arrives in a pool of orange-zested oil accented with hazelnuts and wedges of garlic focaccia, a simple, balanced preparation that shows off the sausage’s concentrated musk.
Before opening El Rey two years ago as its head baker — leaving his position as sous chef at Morgenstern’s Goat Town (now the hit pizzeria GG’s) — Gonzalez had never baked professionally. He has since become known for refreshingly creative breakfast pastries and baked goods, including a pound cake shot through with crimson streams of beet and plum, and a banana bread nutty from a swarm of toasted sesame seeds. Perfect foils for the Parlor coffee poured throughout the day, the slices are served in lieu of dessert. Composed sweets would be a welcome addition, but the treats hit the spot.
Gonzalez shares front-of-house responsibilities with a lone barista, serving dishes, taking orders, and bussing, but it hardly affects pacing or service. Both stop to solicit customer feedback while Cuban chanteuse La Lupe serenades over the stereo. They chat about the drinks list (masterminded by GG’s beverage director Gabriel Richter), which features European wines and an eclectic trio of low-alcohol session cocktails, the best of which combines white wine, cucumber, and shiso for “green sangria.”
As the Lower East Side veers ever nearer to all-out debauchery, Morgenstern, Wessner, and Gonzalez seem determined to evolve El Rey in the direction of neighbor-nurture. What they’ve created is not unlike that sangria: an oasis of chill.