California cuisine ingenue Gerardo Gonzalez, who made his name at LES critical darling El Rey, makes his solo debut at new, all-day Chinatown restaurant Lalo for dinner today. It’s not quite an El Rey duplicate, but it shares many of the same ideas. Gonzalez and his partners, Australian cafe Dudley’s alum Mateusz Lilpop and Ben dos Remedios, wanted it to be a minimal, simple place to eat a meal. And the stylings of the California-Mexico border — where Mexican fare takes on a Mediterranean-style, ingredient-focused lightness — remains a starting point to everything, Gonzalez says. But here, the chef wanted to play even more with the sweet, spicy, sour, and savory flavors that often end up together in a single dish in his hometown of San Diego, albeit with ingredients from his travels around the world. "The flavor profiles are: what is what?" he says.
Take a chili strawberry option on Lalo’s snack menu, for example. It’s based on a Mexican candy Gonzalez loves, a dried strawberry that’s spicy, sour, salty, and also really sweet. He created his own version with a tart spice called sumac, aleppo pepper, smoked salt, and plum sauce. "Once you taste it, every dish is a platform for dinner flavors," he says. "Even though the base is sweet, it highlights the spicy sourness of the dish." He’s also got a take on a ubiquitous sweet-spicy-salty Mexican street food called tostilocos, where tortilla chips come topped with things like vegetables, pork rinds, hot sauce, and slightly sweet Japanese peanuts. His version uses plum sauce, pickled pig skin, candied nuts, lime, hot sauce, and jicama. And just as sweets end up on the dinner menu, vegetables end up in the desserts from baker Lexie Smith, including a braised pumpkin with candied panko and queso fresco. "It doesn’t have to be a sugar bomb at the end of the meal," Gonzalez says. "It’s a continuation."
The rest of the menu’s divided into sections, the biggest one dedicated to vegetable-based dishes. (This will come as no surprise to fans of Gonzalez’s work at El Rey, where much of his acclaim came from a creative mastery of veggies.) For salads, Lalo offers a vegan caesar made with nutritional yeast and dulse seaweed, and a brown goddess cucumber salad made with a brown mole vinaigrette, mint, and candied peanuts. A green mole dish comes with hibiscus chutney and a set of seasonal vegetables. Meat dishes range from a chicken with green pineapple hot sauce and sardine tostadas. All of it is meant for sharing, and none of it falls into the course-by-course, traditional dining experience. "It’s essentially every place that I’ve ever traveled or been interested in, manifested in food," he says.
But for Gonzalez, the vibe and the place matters just as much as the food. He wants it to be like an accessible, old New York-style counter as far as its place in people’s lives — "a more democratic way to eat out," he says. When lunch launches next month, he plans to offer a $15 combo that comes with a drink changes regularly. "The atmosphere is trying to match with the food, where it hopefully comes off as a fun, interesting experience that’s kind of unique in New York," he says. Lalo opens for dinner tonight at 104 Bayard Street, between Baxter and Mulberry Streets. Take a look at the space and full menu below.