It’s been a crazy winter in New York. We’re already into March, yet the snow continues to fall and the temperatures continue to drop. I’m so over the slush and snow, and I can feel the mutual pent up frustration of others around me.
Which is why I love hanging out at El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette, because for a moment I can trade in the weather-induced anxiety for some laid-back California calm. Everyone here is very friendly, which is impressive, as the tiny cafe usually gets packed, but instead of losing their cool, the staff cheerfully tells you that things will be ok. If space permits, you can find seats in the very back by the small but functional kitchen, where you can watch Chef Gerardo Gonzalez create his wholesome, vegetable-driven small plates. Not surprisingly, he’s also a very nice guy who’s happy to tell you what’s in his green mole sauce (answer: everything under the sun that’s green) or to give you wine pairing recommendations (the sparkly Macabeo white was a good call).
What brings me back to El Rey repeatedly is the kale salad. With so much kale all over the place, I’m sure the trend for this superfood is probably on the outs, but El Rey’s version is a classic that should persevere when the fad fades. Almond is the key ingredient here that helps to differentiate the kale salad. Many places rely on heavy shavings of parmesan cheese to add depth to kale, but El Rey uses almond shavings instead. It’s an ingenious way of adding some weight to your leafy greens in a more healthful way. The vinaigrette dressing is a great blend of tangy, sour and sweet, adding a nice spring to your salad step. In the am you have the option of adding pickled or poached eggs–I would highly recommend the pickled eggs, if only for their bright pink color.
Any coffee bar worth its weight should have a selection of tantalizing baked goods, and El Rey doesn’t disappoint. I tried slices of the sesame banana and the sweet potato bread, both very good, but the sweet potato was divine. It was extremely moist with the right amount of sweet, and with the candied nuts on top, you almost felt like you were eating a slice of pecan pie.
With such a great breakfast and lunch menu, I returned to try out the dinner service, which was introduced just a few weeks ago. The coffee bar is less packed in the evening, as I’m sure not that many people know about the full dinner menu, and also most would prefer a guaranteed seat rather than risking the wait for one of the very few bar stools (I would guess there are roughly 15 spots).
With dinner, El Rey assumes more of a Baja California vibe. While Latin music plays in the background, Gonzalez starts cranking out funky tapas with flavors that are a little more spirited and in-your-face, and the heat factor really gets turned up. As an example, the sweet and sour papas bravas at first seemed deceptively mild, and the potatoes appeared to be coated in a harmless ketchup-like BBQ sauce. But then gradually the heat built, and I was taken by surprise by the tingling, fiery sensations coating my mouth.
Similarly, the chorizo was heavily spiced, absent the burning heat. I’m not totally sure what was in the marinade, but I could taste something like cumin and vinegar packed into every part of the chorizo sausage. If you ate the meat by itself, it would have been like eating a slice of pepperoni, which would be intense. Luckily the sweet roasted garlic cloves and the hazelnuts provided balance, as did the focaccia bread, although you could never quite shake off the presence of the marinade.
I preferred when the flavors were scaled back a little bit, more in tune with the tone set at breakfast and lunch. The sardines on tostada were fantastic–it featured such great textures and a good balance of flavors that were overall refreshing, never veering into salty, fishy territory as sardines tend to do, and not falling back on tons of rich aioli or a heavy poblano to cover things up.
The green mole burrata similarly impressed me with a complexity that still felt bright and clear. You could taste so many of the different herbs that had gone into the mole sauce, yet the multitude of ingredients served to enhance the mild burrata rather than overwhelming it.
The shaved cauliflower was probably the lightest and most wholesome small plate of the night, but that didn’t mean it was boring. The thin slices of raw cauliflower were coated in a bright vinaigrette, which again exhibited the distinctive qualities of sweet, sour and tangy. Cauliflower’s cruciferous qualities naturally provided the dish with a lot of fibrous bulk, but the poached egg softened the edges so that things didn’t feel too raw and crudite-like, and it felt like a proper appetizer.
After dinner is over, I would suggest that you take a short walk to Morgenstern’s, an ice cream shop whose owner is a partner at El Rey Coffee Bar. Even though it’s freezing out, the ice cream here is so good that it’s worth the trip. The raw milk in particular is outstanding–I’ve never had a vanilla flavor feel so creamy, rich and genuinely pure. They also offer ice cream breakfasts, which is an intriguing thought, and whether you take them up on it or not, a meal at El Rey or Morgenstern’s is always worth the gamble.
El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette
100 Stanton St (between Orchard and Ludlow St)
New York, NY 10002
Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream
2 Rivington St (between Bowery and Chrystie St)
New York, NY 10002