Few chefs have embraced the challenges of a tiny kitchen the way Gerardo Gonzalez did at Nick Morgenstern’s El Rey Coffee Bar and Luncheonette, the cozy Lower East Side café he turned into a destination for designer avocado toast. The restrictive confines exposed his potential rather than snuffing it out, and his colorful, exciting food, like the vibrant tostadas he piled with Portuguese sardines and carrot-top salsa verde, always betrayed a certain restlessness, practically jumping off the plate in a way that said, “Just imagine what I could do with more space!” Last year he found some, partnering with Mateusz Lilpop and Ben dos Remedios, former customers who also own the Australian-ish L.E.S. spot Dudley’s, to open a restaurant in Chinatown.
Originally named “Lalo” for the chef’s childhood sobriquet, Lalito inhabits the husk of Winnie’s, the karaoke dive bar cherished by sloshed vocalists for almost three decades, whose modified sign still hangs out front. Now a different kind of performance takes place in the windowed kitchen where the stage once stood, the sounds of pots and pans clanking even more cacophonous than a butchered version of “I Will Survive.” Dimmed neon lighting and bright yellow banquettes make the dining room look like a toned-down version of Café 80s from Back to the Future Part II in the best possible way, an impression the retro, pop-heavy playlist (“Love Shack,” “Tainted Love”) reinforces. Gonzalez’s Mexican and SoCal-inspired fare, informed by his San Diegan upbringing and Mexican heritage, remains some of the most forward-thinking around.
There are fun twists at every turn, beginning with noshes best gobbled down at the L-shaped bar or when kicking off a sit-down meal. Fans of Gonzalez’s work will recognize the “black bean” dip of squid-ink-tinged white cannellini as well as his vegan chicharrones, a play on Mexico’s popular puffed-wheat snack (also known as duros) that was among my favorite dishes when I reviewed El Rey in 2015. These are giant, wavy salt-and-vinegar crisps sprinkled messily with nutritional yeast and served with hot sauce. They’re great, though I do miss version 1.0’s silky cashew crema and scattering of herbs. Tepache, the fermented beverage made from pineapple rinds that beverage director Anna Morris uses in her Tamarindo cocktail, is also deployed to brine tomatillos for crostini. And please, don’t overlook the Wonka-esque combination of rosewater-candied peanuts and chewy dried strawberries coated in the restaurant’s signature spice of Aleppo pepper, smoked salt, and lemony sumac. The utterly out-there bar snack eats like a PB&J on acid.
As was the case at El Rey, expect mind-bending vegetable-centric small plates ($11–$17) like tahini-drizzled eggplant optionally accented with shreds of mojama, cured tuna as tender as prized Iberian ham. Gonzalez is at his cheeky best when reimagining global classics, from a vegan caesar salad that hints at the ocean via seaweed instead of anchovies to a kasha varnishkes salad that tosses bowtie pasta with crunchy puffed grains rather than the usual fluffy, simmered kind. In the same vein, unstuffed shishito peppers take the place of typically meat-stuffed poblanos in a riff on the hearty Pueblan stalwart chiles en nogada, which amount to a clever handheld delivery system for the dish’s familiar flavors of unctuous walnuts and tangy pomegranate.
Then there are his moles, including a chunky, verdant “salad sauce” thickened with masa, of which Gonzalez jokes, “Essentially we just throw every green thing we can find in the kitchen in a blender.” It lays the foundation for a rollicking winter vegetable salad spiked with grassy goat’s-milk feta, purple potato chips, and florally sweet hibiscus chutney. Murky brown mole “is based off of a pipián recipe from my family, with burnt almonds,” he tells the Voice, adding that the recipe also calls for vanilla and torched citrus. The versatile sauce seasons an earthy, pozole-like stew of hominy and octopus, and also serves as the base for a “Brown Goddess” dressing, which elevates a salad of roughly chopped cucumbers, mint, and candied pumpkin seeds.
With a proper kitchen, Gonzalez is finally able to offer more meats and seafood. His pork carnitas — cured and braised in pineapple juice and beer — come festively decorated with pink pickled onions, cilantro, radishes, crema, and corn nuts, but what makes the dish soar are the freshly made flour tortillas, the best I’ve had since a recent jaunt to New Mexico. The riot of salt, sour, fat, and crunch comes in portions for solo diners ($12), “lovers” ($19), and groups ($40). A purposely petite 3.5-ounce slab of dry-aged strip steak ($15) stealthily provides ample carnivorous pleasure, its funkiness standing up to crushed hazelnuts and hazelnut-infused chile oil. And I’m glad to see that the chef hasn’t stopped hiding bright, tropical flavors in unexpected places, as he does with both crisp-skinned grilled chicken sitting in garlicky green pineapple hot sauce and chorizo-stuffed squid splashed with crimson hibiscus.
While Gonzalez taught himself to bake on the job at El Rey, he’s entrusted sweets to Lexie Smith, a young baker with equally inventive impulses. She believes dessert shouldn’t be a “shameful indulgence,” though her fudgy upside-down persimmon “quatro leches” cake, dusted with dried rose petals, and the dense Mexican-chocolate-babka bread pudding she plies with hemp brittle and crème fraîche, suggest otherwise — at least where the indulgence part’s concerned. Same goes for her sweet plantain cream pie with turmeric marshmallow fluff and corn nut cookie crust, which almost had me belting along to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” (on its second rotation that evening) before I remembered where I was. And anyways, I wasn’t nearly drunk enough for a public performance.
104 Bayard Street
Editor’s Note: In March 2017, the restaurant — originally name “Lalo” — was rechristened “Lalito”