At Under the Volcano, Smoky Flavors and Mezcal
If you worked in a Midtown office when people worked in Midtown offices, there is a good chance you and your co-workers marked a birthday or holiday or a new job in an oak clad beer at some point. oriented pub on East 36th Street called Ginger Man.
Across the street is the sister bar Under the Volcano, where bottles of mezcal and tequila are lined up behind the bar instead of draft beer. Chances are you’ll have partied there once, as Under the Volcano, which opened in 2000, was dormant for 12 years from 2008. Resurrected early last year, it was less than two months before the first indoor dining ban came down.
If you have memories of Under the Volcano, you probably remember the drinks more vividly than anything you might have eaten. The food, however, has been worth attention since November when Irwin Sánchez was hired to produce a short but carefully thought-out selection of tacos and other Mexican dishes. Shortly after he started, indoor eating was stopped for more than a month. The bar is unlucky in terms of timing, but not in the choice of the chef.
Overnight he made Under the Volcano one of the few destinations for mixiots in New York. A mixiote is a bundle of meat – lamb at Under the Volcano – that is wrapped in a kind of wrapper with garlic and salsa, then steamed until it turns into something that resembles meat salsa. When the bundles are loosened, intoxicating, aromatic clouds of vapor should soar towards the sky.
Mr Sánchez’s mixiotes are more heady than most; He sprinkles the lamb with mezcal and gives it a smoke that can be achieved in his hometown, the Mexican city of Puebla, by boiling the parcels underground in a fireplace.
The mezcal also provides some of the vegetable undertones of the magical plant from which it is distilled. Again, this is a temporary workaround. Mr. Sánchez is busy finding sources for the skin peeled from magical leaves, the traditional shell in Mexico. Until he has a steady supply, he uses parchment paper instead.
Mixiotes need a side of beans. The ones at Under the Volcano are very good: soft, glittery, large black ayocotes that are steamed with avocado leaves. Avocado leaves, an essential herb in Mexico, are often skipped over in New York, but not by Mr. Sánchez, whose desire to keep the way things are done exactly where he comes from is a hallmark of his cuisine.
Like the mixiotes, most taco fillings are long-boiled meat made from dishes traditionally cooked over a smoldering fire in the bottom. There is beef birria, richly flavored but with a nuance that extends to Mr Sánchez’s refusal to dip the tortillas in chili-tinted beef fat like almost every other birria dispenser in town does; Lamb barbacoa, simply and elementally seasoned with toasted maguey; and Cochinita Pibil, the yucatecan pork dish with a sour note of Seville oranges and the gnawing heat of habaneros.
This steamed meat gives the tacos a juiciness that can flow down your arms. They also give the short menu a thematic link between underground fire, a theme that references the bar’s name. Another link: “Under the Volcano” is the title of Malcolm Lowry’s acclaimed 1947 novel about a British consul in Mexico, which is ruined by his epic consumption of mezcal, a spirit that starts with agave hearts roasted in a pit.
All of this suggests that someone in the kitchen has a literary outlook. That spirit does indeed belong to Mr Sánchez, who, when not at the stove, writes poetry in Nahuatl, an indigenous language he learned before he could speak Spanish.
Mr. Sánchez sometimes gives Mexican cooking classes with a strong etymological motive. Chocolate, avocado, tomato, chilli and huitlacoche are some of the food terms that come from Nahuatl. He has worked for the Endangered Language Alliance as a Nahuatl teacher and an instructor in a program that teaches Mexican and South American indigenous communities in New York how to cook the strange vegetables they see in supermarkets in their adopted country.
After the pandemic temporarily closed the Brooklyn tavern where he cooked burgers and buffalo cauliflower, Mr Sánchez helped himself by running a pop-up restaurant in a defunct cevicheria in Queens. He called it Tlaxcal Kitchen – Tlaxcal is Nahuatl for corn tortilla and the root of the word taco. Through an open window he was selling Puebla groceries that, in his opinion, did not always do justice in New York. He made tacos árabes, which were introduced to Puebla by immigrants from the Middle East. Tacos al Pastor, to which the tacos árabes developed; and cemitas, sandwiches that make him feel so strong that he bakes their sesame buns three times a day.
The word got around and eventually reached the managers of Under the Volcano. After eating in the Tlaxcal Kitchen, they approached Mr Sánchez to import the menu into their bar. It was his idea to tie cooking to Lowry’s book.
Not all of Mr Sánchez’s literary inspirations are expressed. On Valentine’s Day weekend, he made an Aztec recipe for quail in rose petal sauce, which Laura Esquivel described in “Like Water for Chocolate”. I’d rather read about it than eat it.
The current menu has roughly 10 items, one of which is a fairly routine guacamole. Mr Sánchez, who quit Tlaxcal Kitchen when Under the Volcano hired him, would like to expand that, but he needs more customers. Midtown is still incredibly underpopulated, especially at night when Under the Volcano is open. Outside there are three tall tables on the sidewalk, unprotected and unheated and unlit. Nothing tells you that sitting there you might soon have a Lowry Margarita in hand, a refinement of the classic with a mixture of mezcal and white rum instead of tequila; or a Manhattan, fresh from a relaxing break in a barrel, or a bottled Trappist beer from Belgium.
All of them are good choices, but it would be perverse to eat food cooked with mezcal, or at least mezcal, and not drink any. A copita, a one-ounce glass, lasts about as long as a taco. A less smoky variety goes wonderfully with a cup of bronze lamb consomé that has a handful of chickpeas in it. The sharper bottles are ideal for a cup of Birria with warm corn tortillas to tear open and toss.
Something right in the middle, a mezcal that tastes like cucumber or artichoke, but still has traces of pit roast, is what you want for the nopal salad. Mr Sánchez leaves the cactus raw, hardens it in salt to remove most of its see-through goose bumps, and tosses it with coriander, garlic, and olive oil. Then he spreads it out on a tostada and sprinkles it with queso fresco crumbs. Whatever you associate with cooked nopales, this salad – crispy, light, refreshing, almost peppery – is the opposite.
Like the rebirth of Under the Volcano, it opens up new possibilities.
What the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not receiving star ratings.