More homemade Mexican fare at La Palapa Cocina
By Frank Angelino
A palapa is a beach shelter with a palm-thatched roof, and rockola is Mexican slang for a jukebox. Put them together and you get La Palapa Rockola, a six-month-old Mexican restaurant with many authentic homemade foods.
It is the creation of owners, Barbara Sibley and Margaritte Malfy, two artists who have successfully opened and run La Palapa Cocina Mexicana in the East Village (77 St. Marks Place) for the past three years.
La Palapa, along with other new restaurants and an active neighborhood association, is leading a revival of restaurants in the South Village. David Gruber, President of the Carmine Street Block Association says, This activity is part of our Meet the Chefs tasting event which will be held on Carmine Street in the fall.
Malfy and Sibley have handsomely renovated their space, an old speakeasy site, with a combination of pleasing old brick and rustic and modern touches. Art and the golden age of Mexican Cinema play a big role in the space, because of the owners backgrounds. The bar has a giant, colorful film still of Rosa Carmina, a Mexican film star, and her rumba dancers (signed by Carmina to Sibley and Malfy). One wall, known as the Wall of Lovers, has a number of striking black and white portraits such as the one of actress Maria Felix, a well-known Mexican. One of the dining room walls has shelves for a hundred colorful votive candles that evoke a friendly Mexican taqueria look.
The rear of the dining room has a giant photo of the horseman Pedro Armendariz (one of the original Three Godfathers) and just as you come in the door you can spot a vintage rockola stocked with hundreds of popular Mexican ballads and the like.
Sibley was born and raised in Mexico City. The artists met when they both worked at the Telephone Bar in the East Village during its glory days.
When we first started La Palapa on the East Side we were doing Mexico City specialties. We did everything from scratch, Malfy says. Its quite an understatement since at both La Palapas they make many things from scratch, surprisingly even their chips, called totopos. They are made with fresh cumin, sea salt and fresh blue and yellow corn, said Malfy.
The chips pair excellently with the three homemade sauces: a dark, spicy guajillo chile; a zesty tomatillo, and a sprightly pico de gallo. They are set before every diner, as well as with the superior house made guacamole. The guacamole is at the pinnacle of the best tasting and attractive guacamoles in the city, with perfect texture and flecked with cilantro.
Malfy, a North Carolinian by birth, is very comfortable attending to the multiple tasks that running a restaurant require: shes equally at home talking with staff and customers and describing the homemade food.
We really like the food from Yucatan that uses the spicy Habanero chilies. The food of Oaxaca is where our mole sauce comes from. We bake foods in banana leaves, and roast our lamb shanks in avocado leaves which give a slight anise flavor, Malfy said.
La Paplapa Rockola features Mexican street snacks, or antojitos. You can make a meal of them, as I did, filling the homemade soft corn tortilla with a combination of crumbled homemade guajillo and pork chorizo, a granular queso fresco cheese, and guacamole. Another filling worth trying are slices of the grilled cactus paddles.
Malfy said they make their own cheeses, We use thirty-two gallons of milk a week, including a smooth crema which is akin to sour cream or crème fraiche.
La Palapa has a number of unusual and good things to try, too many for just one visit, such as: little corn masa boats with chorizo guacamole, crema and black beans; grilled chicken with an excellent smoky toasted pumpkin seed and guajillo pipian sauce; shrimps with huitlocoche, or corn mushrooms, infused with tiquilla, tomatillo and jalapeno; and a market-style street snack: corn-on-the-cob slathered with mayo, lime, chile piquin and queso cotija.
Theres a lively bar in the front specializing in over 25 tequilas, fresh lime Margaritas and sangrias, along with beers and wine. The blood orange Margaritas with freshly infused ginger is consistent with the restaurants imaginative use of fresh natural ingredients.
La Palapa cooks with the full palate of chiles that Mexico has at hand to provide flavor and heat in varying degrees. To Malfy, its only natural. People who eat spicy foods have a zest for life, she says.