Located north of Canal Street right near the traffic-beleaguered entrance to the Holland Tunnel, a jungle enclosure is surrounded by what appears to be a makeshift tar paper fence like some slum or favela. You may have to circumnavigate it to find the entrance, since there’s no signage to help you. Yes, a storm of tropical fury has just passed through the neighborhood, leaving puddles you have to slog through to reach the portal, where two beefy bouncers stand under an arch that reads, “Gitano,” or Spanish for gypsy.
As you doubtlessly know, Gitano is an offshoot of an outdoor bar said to be popular with the wealthy in the Mexican Gulf resort of Tulum, which is also the site of some impressive Mayan ruins. The summer pop-up in New York occupies a former parking lot wedged between Sixth Avenue and Canal Street, where honking Ubers and groaning garbage trucks form summer’s sonic and olfactory leitmotif. It’s been flooded with Instagram influencers, who have flocked to be photographed with the greenery. Inauspiciously, it was also temporarily closed soon after opening by the Department of Health.
When visiting, the bouncers will — while not exactly asking for your papers — look you and your dining companion up and down several times, as if analyzing the thread count of your Bermuda shorts and trying to gauge the number of credit cards from the wallet bulge in your back pocket. Through the arch, you see foliage in profusion and even a few actual flowers overhanging lounge areas of sopping wicker furniture. Tables in tight rows also radiate in two roofed areas from a central bar; miscellaneous seating occurs here and there on benches and stools, as well.
Jeez this place is big! And nearly empty at 7 p.m. on a weekday. Black-clad attendants — they could have been extras in Eyes Wide Shut — direct you to a host and hostess, who stand at the corner of the bar and don’t seem entirely familiar with the tablet system used to assign tables. After a few fumbles and some earnest whispering between the two, you are led to a remote corner of the complex.
A quick look at the menu indicates this is less of an eating establishment and more of a hard-drinking one, though a spokesperson says it’s currently in truncated form and will grow later. In addition to page after page of tequila and mezcal shots, there are the usual invented cocktails eclipsing a food menu offering three snacks, seven “short dishes,” and one dessert. From chef Yvan Lemoine and created with the help of Nordic chef Mads Refslund, these are spun out of a small outdoor kitchen next to the privy on the east side of the complex, anchored by a wood-burning oven. A lavish display of fruit reminds visitors of Mexico, though that fruit doesn’t work its way into the food.
The dish that’s caused the biggest sensation is the grilled avocado — halved, seeded, charred, filled with ponzu, and heaped with slivered almonds. Whoever thought of burning an avocado? As you dig into it, you’re likely to reflect on how badly matched the un-citrusy ponzu is with the creamy green fruit, and how maybe the thing is charred because the avocado ($14) is already a little tired.
We tried a couple of cocktails ($16 apiece), including a jungle fever made with espadin mezcal, chile, lime, and cilantro. Basic, but not bad. The Gitano margarita, however, was a total flop, tasting weak and cucumber-y, with the advertised rosemary not coming through. And the orange liqueur that defines the mixed drink was completely absent. Not a margarita in any sense of the word.
Other ordered food was completely hit or miss. A quartet of small sopes ($22), rather than being made with hand-patted masa, were mounted on deep-fried shells that were as tough as toenails. The filling was a nearly sauceless chicken tinga. The carnitas taquitos ($25) sported a pork filling cooked long before, and the promised chicharron that should have given it crunch was entirely missing — or maybe stewed into oblivion. Need I say these dishes were insanely expensive for the size and quality of ingredients?
The quesadilla ($15) with plenty of crumbly cheese and a sad little squash blossom was much better, especially with the green sauce that came along with it, though comically tiny. (OK, it was classified as a “snack.”) Also good was the sole dessert, a passion fruit mousse topped with little chocolate beads with the ridiculous name of “orgasmo” ($13). But there was none of the ginger mentioned on the menu. Don’t trust the descriptions of the dishes.
You could write an essay on the service at Gitano; there are so many classifications in the distribution of labor. One ingratiating staff person had the unenviable task of cruising the rooms with the assignment of upselling more drinks, using the spiel, “Have you ordered your next drink yet?” As if ordering yet another drink in this tropical hell were a fait accompli, like marking off your days in a prison cell on the wall.
We said no, we didn’t intend to, and could we please get our check? Naturally, it never came, and we had to ask several other employees hurrying by before we finally got it. The check for two drinks, five small dishes, plus tax and tip: $160.
As we returned to the tumultuous street, we agreed that many patrons will go for the drinks and selfies among the tropical foliage, and for those purposes, the place is unique in the city. But for those who care about food, and especially Mexican food, Gitano is a big dud.