Once upon a time, lower Manhattan, say, below 14th Street, had not been Discovered except by the locals and a few arty types. It was a series of real neighborhoods. Many small businesses were located on the first 2 floors of 5- and 6- story buildings, apartments upstairs. The first floor was actually about halfway below ground level, with stairs to go down to the door and the small area across the front of the building where pots of shrubs tried unsuccessfully to hide trash cans. Windows gave a truncated view of life on the street, and ceilings were low - there was a certain feeling of being in a burrow, but that added to the romance of any restaurant in such a setting. And there were plenty of them, cozy dark spots run by families dishing up coq au vin or spaghetti or kebabs, travel posters on the wall and stubby candles here and there. (Fans of old, old movies will immediately recognize the setting; Hollywood always knew romantic.)
So when I saw Antojeria La Popular, walked in the front door and down a few steps, I couldn't help but smile. No travel posters, and a modern bar, but cozy and lit like a scene from one of those old movies. The food is Mexican, but it's like few Mexican restaurants around. They're doing, to mix Spanish metaphors, Mexican tapas. No cliches, including no margaritas, but plenty of interesting cocktails. Sangria, too, red and white, as well as limited wine and beer.
Some of the dishes work well for sharing. Others, well, not so much except for close personal friends. But all of them we tried were delectable. By chance, the only ones that had semi-serious heat were the first two that arrived, which are shown in the picture. (Note the sign on the table.) Four different ceviches are available; our Distrito Federal contained sirloin slices as well as shrimp, tilapia, serrano chile and red onion in a slightly thickened sauce described only as a Triblin sauce. Not particularly handsome but tasty. Alongside was the creamy, warm corn dish Tabasco, named for the state in Mexico, not the sauce. It was almost a pudding in consistency, with strips of roasted poblano in it, giving it a slow-growing kick, but that was partly offset by plenty of Chihuahua cheese.
Continuing, came next tostadas, one called Michoacan, with chicken in a mole sauce topped with lettuce and a toasted sesame crema, and another, Zacatecas, with pieces of sirloin and a green sauce. Tucked into a pita was a combination of shrimp, bacon, avocado, and a little poblano chile, lightly dressed in a smoky mayonnaise, particularly remarkable. And then a real surprise, raw tuna diced with mango, just a little hit of habanero pepper (don't be frightened - this really sings) and again just a little binding with mayo, all on a large, thin slice of jicama to provide crunch. Practically brilliant.
Yes, flan is a cliche of a dessert. But that was what was available. This is probably the best flan I've ever eaten, exquisitely silky and rich but not rubbery, and somehow managing to be delicate. Like the seviche, not remarkably beautiful but worth pursuing.
A few blocks below Houston Street, it's possible for pre-theater dining for some of the tiny off--off Broadway spots, or to finish off a day of shopping in the neighborhood. (And the Spring Street subway station is at the other end of the block for tired feet.) Very small, very cozy, good people-watching. And they offer different kinds of chilaquiles, a sort of scrambled egg with tortilla dish, on weekends, and of Mexican chocolate, so it's a brunch option, too. Plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free choices are noted on the menu.
La Antojeria Popular
50 Spring Street, New York City
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: No