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Nick Solares

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Chinatown’s Lalo Keeps Its Sense of Humor

Even as Gerardo Gonzalez adds proteins to former El Rey menu

When El Rey opened late in 2013 on a hardscrabble stretch of Stanton across the street from the punk-rock venue Arlene’s Grocery, it was mainly a coffee bar. Chef Gerardo Gonzalez, who’d worked previously at the General Greene and Goat Town, was put in charge of developing a baked goods program, because what good is a latte without a slice of quick bread? As summer approached, the windows were flung open to the Lower East Side’s warm breezes and Gonzalez started experimenting with salads and savory dishes, eventually adding them to the menu. Soon, the tiny place was mobbed with a crowd that seemed mostly models and food writers. I found myself meeting friends there for lunch upwards of once a week.

The strictly vegetarian food was simple but spectacular. It was made-to-order by the chef himself, who chatted up the regulars as he cooked behind a counter at the end of the room. I remember a dish called avocado del sur, which provided slices of the pale green fruit on cut pitas, blotted with an even greener chimichurri. Topped with pink pickled onions, its clash of colors knocked your socks off. An equally surprising salad featured chicharrones de harina (a pig-skin substitute), while a chia-seed pudding glowed red and white with pomegranate and freshly shaved coconut. And there was, of course, a killer kale salad that boosted the reputation of that mid-decade obsession. Rarely had good-for-you food been quite so appealing.

In 2016 the bearded and mustachioed chef from San Diego left El Rey, vowing to start his own restaurant. He traveled to Europe and Mexico first, then opened Lalo in Chinatown, supplanting what had been a battered but much-loved karaoke tavern. Though the layout remained the same — with a bar to the left of the entrance, and a line of tables on the right — the color scheme was extensively brightened, and the fake Tiffany lamps, red Naugahyde booths, and shabby beer signs banished. Now there are semicircular banquets that glow yellowish-orange, kitchenette tables with metal chairs, and a mortise that looks into the scullery, where Gonzalez can be seen squinting as he surveys the room.

To his arsenal of vegetables, fruits, and grains he’s added chicken, fish, and red meat. This may disappoint some vegetarian devotees, but it has only served to sharpen the chef’s technique and sense of whimsy. Since the opening last November, the menu has changed considerably as Gonzalez continues tinkering. His trip to Mexico has paid off in cumin lamb barbacoa ($17), a rich red broth dotted with dark shreds of meat and creamy masa gnocchi — one of the chef’s most spectacular inventions. A roast half-chicken arrives laved in a bright cilantro sauce, reminding us of the chef’s affection for the color green. Later, pineapple would enrich and sweeten a revamped sauce.

Lalo
Lalo
Lalo

[Clockwise from the top left: Caesar salad; cumin barbacoa with gnocchi; boquerones tostadas; and baby steak]

Indeed, it often seems that half the things on the menu feature green as the predominant color. A holdover from El Rey is a vegan Caesar salad ($12). Cunningly, it substitutes brewer’s yeast for anchovies to achieve similar umami. Equally verdant is a "brown goddess" cucumber salad dressed with mole and mint that doesn’t quite work (the dressing might as well have been balsamic vinegar). You want wacky? A couple of crazy apps fill the bill. One is a bar snack of dehydrated chile-coated strawberries and rose-flavored peanuts that came one evening in a soap dish shaped like a lady taking a bath. I defy you not to like this app, even if the flavors remind you of Palmolive. (Hence, perhaps, the serving vessel.)

I defy you not to like this app, even if the flavors remind you of Palmolive.

Another crazy menu item is a bread dip made from white beans zapped with squid ink that turned the dip black. This is intellectualized cooking at its finest, but at some point you’ve got to wonder, wasn’t the black-bean dip that inspired it good enough already? On a menu studded with interesting notions, one of the finest is the miniaturization of the expensive steakhouse steak. Many have had the experience of going to a steakhouse, plunking down $75 or so, and getting more steak than you could ever eat or fully enjoy. For $15, Gonzalez offers an assayable portion of New York strip: 3.5 ounces of dry-aged meat sliced and topped with crunchy and spicy hazelnut oil. Really, even that quantity is enough to share between two people, proving that eating steak is all about concentrated bovine flavor, rather than sheer quantity.

Cost: Dinner for two, including two starters or vegetables, one side, and two meats or mariscos, with two cocktails, and tax but not tip, $125.

Sample dishes: Vegan Caesar salad, black bean dip and chips, cumin lamb barbacoa, papas bravas, baby steak, toasted kasha salad

What to drink: A wealth of drink options are available, including aquas frescas (homemade non-alcoholic sodas); wines in six categories, of which orange, jerez (sherry), and bubbles are three; beer; cocktails; and punches.

Bonus tip: Miss El Rey? Well, you can simulate the experience by sticking to the starters and vegetables sections of the menu and dining on such dishes as Caesar salad, green mole with roasted vegetables, and vegan chicharrones.

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