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.
The menu at El Rey del Sol requires some careful navigation. The mole is bland; the boneless breaded chicken cutlet on toasted-pumpkin-seed sauce ($10.95) is curiously tepid, possibly because there is an inherent limit to the pleasure that can be had from eating any sauce that tastes solely of toasted pumpkin seeds; and the vegetarian burrito with cactus and chayote squash ($8.95) is serviceable but not in the same league as, say, its counterpart at the nearby Kitchen Market (218 Eighth Avenue; 243-4433). It’s also worth keeping an eye on the weather before heading for El Rey del Sol. On the cold nights that I went there, a numbing breeze gusted through the place each time the front door was opened. More happily, when summer comes, I will surely check out the “Quiet Garden” at the rear, a spacious, tranquil spot that insouciantly combines the pastoral and the junkyard.
Having finally woken up to the possibilities of this portion of 14th Street, the Underground Gourmet began to stalk the block with intent to eat: El Patio (212 West 14th Street; 647-9603), a cheerful diner with a sideline in quesadillas and nachos; Tequila’s (245 West 14th Street; 463-0535), a raucous Mexican whose baked tortilla soup ($2.50) and off-the-menu guacamole special (chopped, mashed, and custom-blended with onions, radishes, lemon, tomatoes, cilantro, etc., at your table) should be your focus; and Fresco Tortilla Taco (215 West 14th Street; 352-0686), a thriving Chinese-owned outlet.
But best of all is Sucelt Coffee Shop (200 West 14th Street; 242-0593), a Colombian-run restaurant that has been in business for 22 years. How could I have been so blind as to miss this place? Sucelt Coffee Shop has two orange counters, nine red stools, relaxed and informative service, and a steady supply of satisfied, mostly Hispanic, customers. There is a busy takeout trade, but I was made to feel welcome sitting at the counter over a frothy café con leche.
The food is of a maternal wholesomeness, simple and delicious, and has that supreme quality of Mom-cooked grub: It can do no wrong. The beans (garlicky black or more peppery red) and rice (yellow or white) are accompanied by a thick, sweet slice of fried plantain, and are exactly what’s required. The tamales are large, varied, and superb: Try the hot Mexican (with pork and spices; $2.50), the subtly gratifying Venezuelan (pork, chicken, beef, raisins, and capers; $3.75), and the Puerto Rican (green banana and pork; $2.50). The empanadas have a light but filling pastry and are available with real crabmeat, shrimp, and octopus (all $1.75), also shredded beef, chicken, cheese, or ham with sausage (all $1.40). There are also daily specials. I liked the ground beef ($5.50), which is served with raisins, onions, beans, and rice, and is handily washed down with a fresh fruit batida made from milk or ice and available in mamey, soursop, passion-fruit, mango, and banana ($2.75 to $3). Sucelt Coffee Shop is like a home away from home, and I’ll be lingering there until – hell’s bells, until the next Bush administration.
El Rey del Sol is open from 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekends. Cash only. Sucelt Coffee Shop is open from 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays, and from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays. Cash only.