You’d think that after the current flurry of wild culinary inventions, wacky international fusions, and revivals of obscure historic dishes, there’d be nothing left to surprise us. Yet food can still astonish, as it did me recently at Panzón, a new bar at 23 Greenpoint Avenue in Brooklyn. The restaurant is located on the last block of the avenue, just before it dives into the East River as the lights of Manhattan twinkle merrily across the water.
Panzón (“beer belly”) is mainly a bar — featuring a contemporary combo of cleverly named cocktails, craft and Mexican beers, and skin-contact wines — but with a menu of bar food that threatens to overshadow the booze. In fact, it emulates the bar menus of Mexico City, such as we’ve already seen at working-class Jackson Heights bars like Michelada House II. This place is fancier, of course, but matching its Queens competitor dish-for-dish. The chef is Alfredo “Fredy” Ilanos, who was born and raised in Mexico City.
The premises is deep and narrow, with a bar up front framed by a cactus forest. There’s a flock of raised bar tables further in, and finally some regular two- and four-tops against one wall with splendid views of the kitchen: These are the best seats. Along the way find art in profusion, including strings of ceramic bells, folkloric masks, miscellaneous wall-weavings, and a beatific Madonna grasping a molotov cocktail. (The saint, not the singer.)
The dish I want to tell you about looks like a glistening nest of spiders with an orange chile-mayo dipping sauce on the side. These are deep-fried onions, like the kind home cooks used to shake from a can when making casseroles. In this case, the onions are newly fried and shiny with oil, not dry in the least. They would be tasty by themselves, only in this case they’ve been liberally sprinkled with crumbly cricket salt, making them tart and almost metallic-tasting in an intriguing sort of way.
Really, words cannot suffice to say how good these onion shreds are. They are nothing like onion rings, which too often disappoint. At $6, this is one of the city’s most alluring bar snacks. But what to drink with it? The avocado margarita ($18) practically begs you to order it, if only to see how the green fruit once known as alligator pear might be incorporated into a mixed drink. Rimmed with chile salt and a cucumber contrast, it is very mild.
There’s also a crazy pollo milanesa torta ($18) that irrationally piles a good-size serving of salsa-dressed chilaquiles on top of a floppy chicken cutlet. The combination of crunch and squish is sublime — and the sandwich gets squishier as you progress. Grab a fork! The formulation also includes avocado, black beans, crema, Oaxacan cheese, jalapenos, and purple pickled onions.
Even the guac is distinctive, the green stuff laced with blistered poblano peppers more verdant than spicy. The two salsas on the side are unnecessary but welcome, and here’s the best part — it’s served with just-fried corn tortillas. These warm tan frisbees taste like a cornfield, and invite you to turn them into tostadas with the guac and salsas.
The same corn flavors dominate the machete quesadilla ($18). Here the mushroom-and-cheese filling bursts with earthiness, but the shape is all wrong. The Mexico City original features a masa strip that actually looks like a machete, a swashbuckling bar snack that can feed several and constitutes a conversation piece in itself.
The so-called sticky wings, coated with a tamarind barbecue sauce, are also a not-bad choice, aggressively tart and sweet, though they are so sticky that a pile of napkins is inadequate to cleanse your fingers enough to grasp your wine glass, so beware.
For those who prefer bar food that calls less attention to itself, pick the trio of tinga tacos ($18). The shredded chicken filling has just the right amount of heat to make you want another gulp of beer, while the cooling avocado salsa means that maybe you don’t need it.