Although the Underground Gourmet is no mean flaneur, he hasn't lingered on West 14th Street since spending a few late nights in Nell's during the Bush administration. Fourteenth somewhat charmlessly marks the northern border of downtown Manhattan, and in my prejudice against all borders and raucous thoroughfares, I treated it simply as a line to be crossed with the minimum of delay and incident. Recently straying onto the block between Seventh and Eighth, however, I noticed a basement establishment lacking any signboard. If a colorful map of the Rio Grande and its environs had not been painted on the front door, there would have been no clue that behind this anonymous exterior, something foody was afoot.
Inside, it turns out, is El Rey del Sol (232 West 14th Street; 229-0733), a self-proclaimed purveyor of "unfeigned Mexican cuisine." To teasingly emphasize this fact, the proprietors have crowded their dungeonlike space with Day of the Dead skeletons, the skull of a long-horned steer, fishing nets, papier-mâché chili peppers, hanging puppets, voodoo masks, stuffed birds, suspended Christmas lights, and a mysterious iridescent painting of the Crucifixion attended by firemen and Elizabeth Taylor. You don't have to be Roland Barthes to detect the presence of kitsch; and where there's kitsch, of course, there are postcollegiate slackerish consumers, here sipping margaritas ($6) and fresh watermelon juice served in the glass jars of Santeria candles ($7).
But a restaurant cannot live by kitsch alone, and it's El Rey del Sol's kitchen that keeps the slackers coming. For starters, the chipotle appetizer ($7) -- grilled jumbo shrimps and nuggets of marlin served on a bed of mesclun greens and a chipotle purée -- is smokily delicious; guacamole comes in a fist-size blob that needs only a dash of salt to achieve perfection; the salsa (more tomato and onion than cilantro; $3) has the right surreptitious spiciness but, disappointingly, must be eaten with tortilla chips straight from a bag. And even if the Mexican salad, a giant plate filled with all kinds of chopped fresh vegetables and fungi and drizzled with a tangy vinaigrette ($5), is not as Mexican as its name suggests, it is nevertheless much appreciated.
As for main courses, the vegetarian tamales ($9) are tasty if scrawny pillows of cornmeal that conceal punchy red and green anaheim peppers. They're served with a ratatouillesque mélange of roasted vegetables that pops up elsewhere on the menu. Black beans are slightly puréed and served in a Martha Stewart-worthy corn-tortilla basket. Enchiladas, Mexican comfort food, are appropriately earthy and filling: Enchiladas verde with chicken ($10.95) have the zesty freshness of tomatillo and cilantro, but my heart belongs to the cheese version with red sauce and a perfectly judged ooziness ($9.95). A shrimp tostada ($5.95) was excellent: The thin layer of beans ensured that the bright-red corn tortilla stayed crisp to the end, and the plump shrimps were grilled just right.