South of the Border in SoHo
Papatzul Serves Up Regional Mexican Specialties With A Side of Hospitality
Back in 1990, when I was a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Manhattan had a different vibe. For one, I carried a “stun gun” a Puerto Rican acquaintance secured for me. (No questions asked, if you catch my drift...) I lugged that thing around in my pocket – cuz – truth be told, the city felt a bit menacing back then to a relatively wholesome kid from Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Needless to say, I was also on a budget. During that summer, I ate hot dogs from the street vendors, tried my first knish from a Jewish deli, and discovered that Queens was not the regal neighborhood I had envisioned. I also made friends with a local who took me to eat the worst “Mexican” food I’d had in my life. Soggy, saucy and insipidly NOT Mexican, I cringed to think that this was what the Big Apple had to offer when I longed for what I considered “comfort food.”
Fast forward 18 years… and not only is Manhattan transformed into a wonderland of safe streets packed with shiny, happy people and (mostly) friendly taxi drivers but there are actually some decent Mexican digs.
When I first saw Papatzul around the corner from the swanky SoHo Grand, where I recently spent a couple of weeks, I had my doubts. Mexican… in New York? Did I really want to take a risk when there are so many places I’d be guaranteed a good meal?
Well, it was HOT outside. And, nothing sounded quite as refreshing as a margarita. So, up the steps and into the bar I bellied.
The first thing I noted was the vast array of tequilas. I mean, this wasn’t one of those “we have 300 tequilas!” type of places. Nor do I need a place to offer that many. (I can only make it through about 3 drinks in a sitting, myself.) Still, it had a decent array of the tequilas I enjoy: Partida, Herradura, Milagro and the like. I also happened to have a bottle of certified organic 4 Copas in my bag (I was teaching The Liquid Muse Sustainable Sips earlier that night) and I gave the bartenders a taste. (I’m always happy to introduce people to a “greener” way of drinking, after all…).
The atmosphere at Papatzul is great because the staff is so friendly. Ashley, the bartendress, was a doll – and makes mean tamarind as well as hibiscus margaritas (pictured here). She also recommended that I try a specialty of the house …. Which are scrambled quail egg enchiladas in a nutty sort of sauce. It is a dish typical of a region near Mexico City, where the owner Thierry grew up.
Now, I know what you’re thinking – Thierry? Is this some froggy transplant passing himself off as “Latino?” No, Thierry Amezcua is from Mexico, though his mother is from France. My dad is from France, so we chattered away in French for a while, too. (Another surprise in this tiny corner of Manhattan.)
Some guy, sitting with two models at the bar, kept asking when Thierry was getting a DJ for Sunday afternoons. It seemed as if Thierry has put a lot of thought into this, and although it could be a good idea (Felix, kitty-corner from Papatzul serves French bistro fare while blasting Brazilian samba on the weekends as patrons spill onto the street, Caipirinhas in hand), I couldn’t help but think about Anthony Bourdain’s description of NYC restaurant owners desperately grabbing at any gimmick to lure the customers to their corner of the sidewalk. I hoped that wasn’t the case with Thierry – but, as we all know, the restaurant business is “perro eat perro.”
I went to many fancy and wonderful places during my two weeks in New York but I can assure you that Papatzul is the ONLY place where the owner of the joint sat down at the bar next to me, pulled up a chair and talked shop in between cooking customers’ orders. (Thierry is also the Executive Chef.) If I had the means to live at the SoHo Grand, or in SoHo for that matter, Papatzul would be my neighborhood hangout. The people are nice. The food is good. The margaritas are delicious. And, yeah, the neighborhood ain’t too shabby. Which is important because that stun-gun would never get through security at the airport these days…