The wrap storm that blew over New York City a few years ago has passed, apparently without causing any permanent damage. For a while, even the Underground Gourmet – usually an eat-and-let-eat, man-for-all-seasonings sort of fellow – battened down the hatches, stunned by Cajun chicken wrapped with sour cream and mustard greens, and Thai spicy beef with tofu and broccoli. Washing it all down with that other West Coast arriviste, the smoothie, didn’t improve matters greatly. But let’s not forget, as we shake off our umbrellas, that foodstuffs wrapped in flatbread are not at all bad. Quite the contrary: In their classic forms, they can make the perfect meal.
Which brings us to the SoHo crêperie Palacinka (28 Grand Street; 625-0362). This is a mysterious establishment. It has a Hungarian-sounding name but a distinctly Rive Gauche atmosphere, even though a close inspection reveals few French touches other than pots of Bonne Maman jam, an Orangina poster, and some Baleine sel de mer containers. There is nothing particularly Gallic about the tin ceilings or the metallic tables or the decorative bric-a-brac – a predictable assortment: wooden tennis racquets, leather suitcases, an old accordion – and the drowsy music that suffuses the restaurant’s intimate candlelit space is usually Depression-era American (but sometimes Slavic folk music). The effect is American expat café in thirties Paris, and it works.
As does the nosh: brown, bulging (but not overstuffed) crêpes that look, but happily do not taste, like buff envelopes. The portobello crêpe ($7) comes with grilled mushrooms, mozzarella, roasted potato, and superbly pitched pesto, and is a subtle delight. So too is the ham-Gruyère-and-tomato combo ($7), which features the cheese in an oozy incarnation, with lots of grain mustard. The Italian salami ($7.50) – in appropriately mouth-stinging form – is partnered with mozzarella, roasted spuds, and black-olive tapénade; like the other crêpes, it comes with fresh organic mixed greens and a guile and coherence that newfangled wraps, with their willy-nilly mélanges, so often lack. Palacinka also serves a Mediterranean salad ($9) – you’ve guessed it: mixed greens, feta cheese, olives, Italian salami, roasted peppers, and kalamata olives – that is serviceable but, in comparison with its griddle-made pals on the menu, paltry on the palate.
For dessert, you eat more crêpes, only this time they’re sweet, and they are fabulous. One number has Pollockesque drippings and drizzlings of chocolate on the outside and banana on the inside ($5). Likewise, the chestnut-purée crêpe – delicious! earthy! – hoards crème de marrons within its folds, covered with thick freckles of powdered sugar.
Palacinka has no liquor license, so remember to bring a bottle of wine. Unless you’re coming for breakfast.
Palacinka is open Monday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Cash only.
Inspired by the charms of Palacinka, I dropped in on Omjavi (112 Chambers Street; 732-1949). This spacious Jamaican restaurant has a wide-ranging menu that features the likes of cow foot, jerk chicken, ackee and salt fish, and cow-cod soup (ranging from $6 to $10), but I was there to eat rotis. Sitting beneath a huge mural of bright Jamaican landscapes, I discovered a curry-vegetable roti ($5), in which spinach, carrots, onions, or cabbage – your choice – are crisp and fresh and swathed in a flatbread as big as a tabloid, and which is very, very good news. The curry-goat roti ($5) was also flawless, if monotonously meaty alongside its vegetarian counterpart. Which is not to say that the meat was anything other than excellent: tender, yet still chewy enough to give you that slight workout of the jaw muscles that goat properly demands. The curry in both of the rotis was mild and complemented the sweet fried plantains ($2), which in turn went down very well with an order of rice and “peas” (i.e., red beans).
Omjavi was uncrowded the night I went there, but it is pretty clear that this TriBeCa haunt, with its attentive staff, cavernous interior, and unique character, would make a great place to have a party. If the music videos playing on the TV screens are anything to go by, expect rap.
Omjavi is open Monday through Wednesday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday till 11 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. All major credit cards accepted.
On something of a roll, as it were, the Underground Gourmet headed for one of his favorite spots in Manhattan, the gritty, potpourri West Thirties, the location of one his favorite exemplars of a cuisine that bundles food with a savvy vengeance – Mexican. Los Dos Rancheros Mexicanos (507 Ninth Avenue, at 39th Street; 868-7780) is a no-frills place that immediately distinguishes itself by the three superb salsas that come with slightly greasy but reassuringly homemade fried tortilla chips: a salsa fresca that has loads of cilantro, a bite of jalapeño, and garlic galore; a very smoky, very luxurious chipotle purée (it’s a rare treat to have this served as a dip: If it doesn’t appear as a matter of course, ask for it and the staff will oblige); and a tomatillo salsa, which is tangy and snappy with lime and cilantro.
The tacos are good here – make that great: soft corn tortillas piled high with slivers of grilled chicken or chorizo (nicely hot), with onions and cilantro ($2). This is cheap, but the tostadas are an even better deal. For $2, you get, in addition to the corn tortilla (fried crispy, of course), a really thin layer (thin is good) of black refried beans with your meat of choice, salad, salsa, and a sprinkling of white cheddar. This value makes the flautas (a steep $8) not the most cost-effective way of getting your fill of rice and beans. On the other hand, the enchiladas verdes also cost $8, but with their zippy sauce and pillowy cheese have that something extra that makes them worth every penny.
The food here is so engrossing – and let’s not forget the beer, which at $2 a bottle of Corona is as cheap as you’ll find in any Manhattan restaurant – that it is only in the postprandial bliss-out that one fully appreciates the charm of the environment. There is a füssball table (sluggish and missing one ball, but playable), a jukebox (which, if you’re not careful, will drown out your conversation), murals (low-key), and mainly Hispanic patrons (also low-key). Table service is an unhurried, friendly, Spanish-language affair. Sit back with a mamey batidas milkshake ($3), banish any thoughts of smoothies, and consider the day a wrap.
Los Dos Rancheros Mexicanos is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 10.30 p.m. Cash only.