With big picture windows on Lafayette, black cinderblock walls, a fruiting lemon tree, institutional chairs, and low tables, Atla seems like a Montessori school reunion in which everyone has grown up. This latest project of Cosme chef Enrique Olvera and Daniela Soto-Innes that opened Friday is cheaper and more casual, with emphasis on vegetables and small portions. While the prices during this first look seem relatively cheap — most dishes fall into the $9 to $16 range — you have to eat several to fill up.
I fell in love with the place at first bite, liking it better than Cosme. One reason is that the plebeian food of Mexico is showcased more than its haute cuisine, so that many of the dishes are fascinating riffs on old taqueria favorites.
My first meal was weekend breakfast by myself at a sunny table. I ordered a tamale that’s smaller than standard sizes, wrapped Oaxacan-style in a banana leaf rather than a corn husk. It’s listed as a kale tamal, and I ordered it expressly because I hate kale: There. I’ve said it.
But far from being health food, the tamal was slippery with fat, with the kale actually providing further lubrication in its minced state: no thick veins or cardboard texture. On top came a fibrous salsa dotted with fresh serrano chiles and powerfully spicy, much spicier than you’d expect. Thank you, Olvera and Soto-Innes! By scraping seasoning to the side and eating just the right amount with each bite of masa, you can regulate the heat.
The spin on classic huevos rancheros is fun but familiar. A pair of stark poached eggs are concealed under a brick-red salsa sea. A fresh hoja santa leaf sits on the side, tasting of cinnamon and smoke. Underneath hides creamy homemade tortillas. Every bite of this delightful huevos rancheros is full of flavor. You’ll find yourself spooning up the extra salsa like gazpacho.
I was there the next day for an early dinner. But let’s call it supper, because dinner as we know it is not yet possible at Atla. Even the larger dishes lack the sides and other accoutrements — piles of steaming tortillas, for example — that would make for a completely satisfying dinner.
On this afternoon and evening menu, the chefs again showed their unique approach with the chile relleno. It was stuffed, not with cheese or minced meat according to the menu, but with steak tartare. How would an egg-battered and fried poblano chile relate to the cold beef? The chile wasn’t cooked in the usual manner. It had been simply poached naked to light greenness, still crunchy but yielding to the fork, then chilled before being stuffed with micro-diced steak. The pepper provided the heat, and the coarseness of the cubing made for a nice chew.
Atla’s take on pambazo was even better. In fact as the place filled up within 10 minutes of re-opening at 4:30 p.m. yesterday, everyone seemed to be ordering it. With a bun dipped in chile sauce, this street sandwich of Mexico City is a rarity in New York. In fact there are probably only four or five versions in Brooklyn and Queens. All the conventional ingredients are there at Atla’s rendition: ground chorizo, crumbled white cheese, potatoes, and shredded iceberg lettuce. The bun swims in dark red chile sauce, though the sandwich still displays a certain upscale delicacy — one that would make Chilangos smile. Yet they would agree, this pambazo is totally on the money in every regard. You just need to eat three of them.
I downed a Oaxacan coffee —a mezcal-laced cocktail — and ate one of the breakfast pastries known as oreja (“ear”), but there really is no proper conclusion to a meal at Atla. Just creep out the door with some regret, since it’s hard to have a complete meal there, or at the very least, to leave full.