Gray-pocked guacamole, less-than-sizzling fajitas, watery frozen margaritas—for decades, that was the sad state of South of the Border eats in New York. But this low-lit, monochrome East Village cantina, from Ofrenda amigos Jorge Guzman and Mario Hernandez, busts out of the tortilla-wrapped norm, spotlighting tribal delicacies like grasshoppers, worms and, yes, the namesake ant. Hailing from the Dominican Republic and Cuernavaca, Mexico, respectively, the pair sources those creepy crawlers and the modern Mayan decor straight from their home states—there’s not a dollar-store sombrero in sight.
ORDER THIS: Brave bugged-out snacks like the tlayuda con chapulines ($14). Crispy, chili-spiced grasshoppers smother a toasted tortilla, punctuated with cooling dollops of queso de rancho and avocado cream. And insects don’t stop at the plate: the salt rim of the sweet-corn-and-tequila Yum Kaax ($12) hints at chipotle, but ask the bartender, and you’ll learn that smoky bite actually comes from grated ants and Maguey worms. Those averse to Timon and Pumbaa–style feasting can opt for pest-free plates like punchy papaya ceviche de jurel ($13) with yellowtail tuna, blanched sea beans and minced serrano peppers, or hearty enchiladas de conejo ($24), which blankets tender braised rabbit in a velvety, tomato-chile sauce and lime-splashed figs.
GOOD FOR: A boldfaced date. Along with the daredevil bites and mescal-heavy quaffs like La Santa Hormiga (fresh cucumber, minty hoja santa leaves), the dark, moody den is a fun house of Aztec-patterned booths, black-and-white desert landscapes, bolero ballads and a rainbow-kissed Dalí-esque ant mural. If the buggy botanas don’t seal the deal for you, the caliente digs should nab you some bedroom brownie points.
THE CLINCHER: A soon-to-be-unveiled garden is home to large Terracota pots of Mexican herbs and cacti, ideal for both scenery and a fresh supply of bar garnishes. Iron tables and chairs in the ceramic-tiled patio will offer 40 extra alfresco seats on warm-weather days, so that sun-soaked southern border won’t feel a ways away.—Rheanna O'Neil Bellomo