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