This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.
When I was new to New York and dating my future wife, there were three Mexican joints we frequented fairly regularly: El Sombrero (The Hat) on the Lower East Side; Maryann's in the East Village; and Lupe's in Soho. Amazingly, for this changeable city, all three are still around, doing pretty much what they did during the Dinkins administration.
When Lupe's opened a quarter century ago on the picturesque and somewhat out-of-the-way corner of Sixth Avenue and Watts Street, Soho was still the art center of Manhattan. Now the neighborhood's choked with boutiques instead of galleries. But the clientele at Lupe's is still as youthful and hipsterish as it ever was, and the prices are just as cheap. Cheap in a very un-Soho way.
Not every one of the diners filling the colorful booths and tables, however, has a goatee and a porkpie hat. The brisk lunch trade brings in office workers in dress shirts and ties, firemen and construction workers. Another important source of trade is the Hamptons Hotel down the block. Italian, French and German tourists residing there have discovered Lupe's as a satisfactory source of inexpensive sustenance. They could do a lot worse. Over the years, Lupe's has often struck me as a picture-perfect example of what an out-of-towner might imagine a local New York eatery looks like.
The decor, with its retro formica tables, mock shrines, 1950s Spanish album covers, and rows of colorful Jarrito sodas, must have seemed hiply ironic in the late '80s. But you can't be ironic forever, and after all these years the surroundings have faded into a kind of composite comfort cocoon of safely cool cultural references.
Lupe's is still run by David Seixas and Shash Blount, who founded it; they also own Boca Chica in the East Village. My waiter, who'd been there ten years, told me the restaurant doesn't think of its cuisine as necessarily Mexican, but its own breed of "American-Mexican. We try to be unique." Be that as it may, the menu is full of burritos, enchiladas, tacos and tamales, and there's nothing here that's going to surprise a New Yorker tastebud. That's probably how the regulars like it.
—Brooks of Sheffield