You couldn’t be blamed for low expectations if you wandered into Salvation Taco, the new stylized taqueria located in the budget Pod 39 Hotel. During prime loosen-your-tie-and-slip-off-your-pumps evening hours, the Murray Hill crowd can be as obnoxious as a roving band of SantaCon reindeer. And the place is in-your-face garish, like a party joint imported from Cancun spring break, with bright Christmas lights and a wall covered in fake fruit.
But that first impression tells only half the story. With April Bloomfield running the kitchen and Ken Friedman in charge of everything else, this is far from your typical after-work sloshfest. The powerhouse team behind the Spotted Pig and the Breslin is playing against type—like Danny Meyer reinventing the burger shack or Tom Colicchio launching a sandwich chain—bringing their highbrow skills into a new mass-market arena.
The venue—as colorful as a Mexican blanket, decked out in a rainbow of thrift-store junk—skews younger than any this team has opened previously, designed to fit the Pod’s youth-hostel vibe. The sprawling space, a happy-hour rec room, features two long votive-lit bars, plush couches for lounging and Ping-Pong tables in glass-enclosed nooks. It is first and foremost a place to imbibe, its Mexicanish finger food mostly designed for easy consumption while clutching an icy cerveza.
Bloomfield could have phoned it in for this out-of-her-wheelhouse venture. But instead she’s raising the bar on dirt-cheap Mexican snacks: Smart enough to know the limits of her expertise, she tapped taco maestro Roberto Santibañez, of Fonda, for help.
The Mexican chef, who owns a piece of the project, brings a solid South of the Border foundation to Bloomfield’s polyglot tacos. Tiny tortillas—made fresh to order from Nixtamal masa, in view of the bar —are stuffed with primo ingredients from all over the place. Tender strips of medium-rare skirt steak come swaddled in a Texas-style smoky pecan-and-chipotle salsa. Crispy sweetbreads have Italian and Middle Eastern notes, from fried chickpeas and sweet pomegranate relish. And there’s a great Southeast Asian kick to the red-curry cream spooned onto golden roasted cauliflower. While the taco dimensions—three bites max—are traditionaly Mexican, the fillings, for the most part, proudly are not.
Bloomfield and Santibañez, bouncing ideas off each other, are reinventing Mexican classics—al pastor taco filling inspires a bright, spicy salad, heavy on the fruit, with hunks of crisp pork belly tossed with charred pineapple and slivered poblanos. They’re also serving a host of multicultural winners, like miniature naan piled with Moroccan-spiced lamb breast—the meat slow-cooked in banana leaves then crisped on the griddle—or the classic hangover soup posole, its citrus tang amped up by excellent hot-sour kimchi.
While most of these dishes are in very small portions, the large-format Jacob’s Ladder Feast—a gorgeous peppery, falling-off-the-bone short rib with house-pickled cauliflower and cactus, zingy green and red salsas, and a stack of tortillas—is a generous and shareable meal.
Friedman and gang have hidden a very good restaurant inside an extremely clamorous bar. It’s a little unfortunate. By the time your piping-hot churros arrive, the place may be mobbed with revelers too soused to really care what they eat. Bloomfield’s food deserves more respect.
Eat this: Sweetbread tacos, skirt steak tacos, lamb on naan, kimchi posole, Jacob’s Ladder Feast
Drink this: Head barman Sam Anderson has compiled a well-crafted list of playful fiesta drinks. Try the creamy 5 Island Horchata ($13), spiked with dark rum and Fernet Vallet. The excellent tart house margarita ($13) comes with a guajillo chili rim.
Conversation piece: The Pod occupies a former Salvation Army building, which inspired the name of the restaurant (and some of the religion-themed decor).The property is the first in what its owners hope will become a big national chain. Bloomfield and Friedman have signed on to do other budget restaurants—not taquerias, most likely—in future Pod hotels.
By Jay Cheshes