There's a fantasy that many New Yorkers keep tucked away—a secret desire to live the sun-bleached, açai-stained California dream, at least for a little while. Those who have no actual plans of making that dream a reality have been sating their cravings in small doses at El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette on the Lower East Side for the past year. For a while, the spot was true to its name, serving daytime-only crowds things like chia seed breakfast pudding, but a few weeks ago, chef Gerardo Gonzalez launched a dinner menu to lure diners to the whitewashed, succulent-adorned space after dark.
The menu at El Rey is small, and so is the space. The dishes are heavy on fashionable ingredients like za'atar and burrata, and light on meat (and gentle on the wallet, too—nothing costs more than $20). This is not, in other words, destination dining. But it's not really meant to be. Somewhere in between a coffee shop and fully fledged restaurant, El Rey serves as a clubhouse of sorts, for the Lower East Side's dewy young things.
Gonzalez's menu hits the right notes for this kind of crowd. A Southern California native with a keen interest in both Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisines, he has a way with bright, clean flavor combinations. His sardine tostada ($13) is a riot of colors and textures, centered around lightly smoked Portuguese sardines with a carrot-and-carrot-top salsa verde, sliced radishes and piquillo peppers. All this is ceremoniously piled atop a crunchy tostada slathered with butter that's been whipped with Greek yogurt to amplify its fluffiness and tanginess—a taco salad gone delightfully AWOL.
Vegetables are the star in many dishes, like the curvy fronds of charred radicchio ($10), their bitterness offset with a swoop of creamy ricotta and fresh mint. Best are the smashed papas bravas ($9), one of the less virtuous offerings (they're deep fried) but most craveable, thanks to a pickled pineapple-habanero-guajillo sauce. Topped with sliced fresh pineapple and cashew crema, they taste like potatoes al pastor.
Chef Gerardo Gonzalez in the kitchen | Papas bravas | Oranges with Aleppo, sumac and salt
Meat appears only once, in a plate of chewy marinated chorizo ($14) sprinkled with orange zest, hazelnuts and roast garlic; it's really only worth getting for the excellent house-baked garlic focaccia to soak up the oil. Better is the stunning octopus salad (at $17, it's the most expensive dish), served with a dramatic black cannellini bean-squid ink purée and Rancho Gordo hominy strewn with "corn dust," or blitzed-up Corn Nuts.
There's wine and beer, and a simple, beautiful dessert of cara cara and blood orange segments dusted with Aleppo peppers, sumac and salt, a nod to the Tajin-topped tropical fruits Gonzalez grew up snacking on. There's a good chance it will be served to you by Gonzalez himself, who does most of the cooking en plein air on a tiny countertop and seems to know every customer who walks in. El Rey is just that kind of place: a neighborhood joint serving the kind of food the neighbors want to eat now.