the underground gourmet

The Underground Gourmet: Salvation Taco Takes Delicious Liberties

Screw authenticity,” said the man in the Borsalino hat perched on the stool next to the Underground Gourmet at Salvation Taco, a new bar and taquería off the lobby of a Murray Hill budget hotel. “This is delicious.” Señor Borsalino, like the U.G. and practically everyone else, was eating something called “Moroccan lamb on naan,” even though it was listed under the menu heading “Tacos.” The so-called taco in question was about the size and shape of a bar of Dove soap and more like a cross between a miniature gyro and a bruschetta. Eating it was tricky: When you tried to pick the thing up or fold it in half taco style (which, by the way, doesn’t work), cubes of juicy meat and diced cucumber spilled out onto your lap and hot lamb grease shot down your sleeve. And yet, like the man in the hat said: delicious.

That goes for much of the food and drink at Salvation Taco, whose owners, April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman, in an apparent attempt to thwart our town’s increasingly fervent Authenticity Police, have gone out of their way to state that their humble efforts are no more Mexican than a Doritos Locos taco. (These days, as everyone who has ever read a food blog knows, if you didn’t subsist on a particular food or cuisine in utero, you lack the ability to appreciate it, let alone the right to cook it. And should you attempt to do so, and are found out, you run the risk of being stripped naked and horsewhipped on the steps of City Hall.)

Still, to the U.G.’s gimlet eye, there is Mexican inspiration everywhere at Salvation Taco: in the small, snacky menu, in the zingy fresh salsas and bright, pungent herbs, and in the room’s colorful, whimsical design. And what are we supposed to make of the two Latinas deftly pressing tortillas out of fresh masa behind the bar? Or the involvement of a bona fide Mexican-born consultant, Fonda owner Roberto Santibañez, despite the fact that he, too, is on record saying that Salvation Taco is absolutely 100 percent inauthentic? Not to overstate our case, but even that aforementioned taco impostor may have a precedent of sorts if you consider tacos árabes, the straight-out-of-Puebla street snack invented by Middle Eastern immigrants to Mexico in the thirties. Although that fusion food evolved to feature pork and chile salsa, it’s reputed to have originated as mutton on flatbread, dressed with yogurt. So there you have it: maybe not so inauthentic after all.

Which is not to deny that equally in evidence all about the place is the distinctive palate and personality of chef Bloomfield, who, with Friedman, has made casual no-reservations bar dining serious business at the Spotted Pig, the John Dory Oyster Bar, and the Breslin Bar & Dining Room. If you’ve ever loitered in the Ace Hotel lobby, you’re doubtless familiar with Bloomfield’s mastery of salty, crunchy snacks. At Salvation Taco, chicken feet and pig’s ears vie with beer nuts and guacamole for the drinker’s attention. The fried pig’s ears, in particular, are terrific: an aggressively seasoned study in crispy-chewy textural contrasts that sticks to your molars like salt­water taffy. (And speaking of things that make you thirsty: The cocktails here are of the meticulously crafted variety—so meticulously, in fact, yours might not materialize until you’ve been served several rounds of food. To play it safe, you might want to order a pre-cocktail beer or glass of wine to sip while you wait.)

Salads are another Bloomfield signature, and though snack-size here, they make an impression. Earthy hunks of roasted kabocha squash mingle with strips of poblano pepper, while the dressing that moistens a crisp combo of jicama, carrots, daikon, and bright, juicy tomatillos tastes almost Thai in its sweet-and-sour interplay. First-rate chili is like a proper Hungarian goulash soup, more broth than beef, and as savory and satisfying as the kimchee pozole, a cross-cultural innovation that melds hunks of tender pork belly, soft hominy, and kimchee made by Bloomfield’s Korean-American deputy, Peter Cho.

Half of the menu is devoted to tacos, each exhibiting a different flavor profile: the roasted cauliflower garnished with curry crema and a fried curry leaf, the pillowy sweetbreads dotted with fried chickpeas, the Korean barbecued beef dressed in a thick, sweetish ssamjang that eats like an East Asian mole. The pork-and-pineapple al pastor and the skirt steak with a pecan-and-chipotle salsa are just as tasty, if less outré, and the fried fish excels in its crisp-­battered, chile-mayo’d simplicity.

If there’s a criticism to make about the grub at Salvation Taco, it’s that there’s not a lot of it. This is partly intentional, in keeping with the bar-snacks street-food theme. This stuff is far from the combo plates of surrounding Murray Hill cantinas or over­stuffed, Mission-style burritos. If you’re a big eater expecting a bucket of guacamole, you might be disappointed. Even the $29 Jacob’s Ladder Feast (good for two, according to our waiter) isn’t much of a belt-loosener. The name is a Britishism for short rib, which arrives on the bone; you’re meant to pluck off the meat, stuff it into steaming-hot tortillas, and slather it with salsa. This option manages to be both Mexican and Bloomfieldian, as the chef’s a well-known proponent of communal gobbling. Truth be told, it’s more medium-­format than large, and doesn’t necessitate a retreat to the lounge to burn calories in a postprandial Ping-Pong match.

On the bright side, you’ll still have room for dessert. Sugarcoated churros emerge hot from the fryer, crunchy-crusted and tender-middled, with a small cup of melted chocolate for dipping. It’s impossible to say whether they’d taste any more authentic if scored from a vendor beneath the 7 train.

Salvation Taco
Address: 145 E. 39th St., nr. Third Ave. 212-865-5800
Hours: Breakfast 7 a.m. to noon, lunch noon to 5 p.m., dinner 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Prices: $3 to $10; $29 for the Jacob’s Ladder.
Ideal Meal: Guacamole, pig’s ears, jicama-and-tomatillo salad, chili, fish taco, and lamb taco.
Note: There’s a trio of lunch tortas (confited chicken thigh, short rib, and lamb’s tongue) served on toasted rolls from a Portuguese bakery in Newark.
Scratchpad: One star for a refreshingly liberated take on Mexican flavors and ingredients, another for the well-crafted original cocktails, and one more for the sense of fun that pervades the place.

This article originally appeared in the February 18, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

The Underground Gourmet: Salvation Taco Takes Delicious Liberties