I have missed the food served at La Palapa Veracruzana since owners Raul and Olga Reyes closed the Veracruz-style Mexican restaurant in the fall of 2009. There have been several (eventually false) reports of an imminent reopening. On Friday, the opening was real. Thanks to the help from some friends, Raul and Olga, are back in business at the same location but with a new name, Mesa. I was worried the new restaurant would abandon the commitment to authenticity and excellence in execution that characterized the original. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded.
It turns out Raul’s real job is construction and one of his clients is Bolsa, the iconic farm-to-table restaurant a few blocks away on Davis. Raul routinely fixes Bolsa’s a/c ans plumbing. Chris Zielke, co-owner of Bolsa and Smoke, and Nick Zukin, the Portland blogger and co-owner of of Kenny and Zuke’s Delicatessen, volunteered their services to help Raul and Olga resurrect their restaurant. Bolsa bartender Eddie ‘Lucky’ Campbell also tossed in some time to develop the cocktail menu. (Don’t miss the luscious house-made spiked horchata.)
Jump for the happy ending.The result is an edgy, informed, and authentic Veracruz-style Mexican restaurant. We started with Empanadas Rellenas ($6.75). These empanadas are a heavy, deep-fried masa and plantain dough stuffed with cheese, chicken ($+2), or shrimp (+$3). Each order contains two empanadas and I recommend asking for one chicken and one shrimp. I am sure it will never happen but if owner Raul and Olga Reyes decide to resell any food item retail, they should distribute these empanadas to supermarket frozen food cases all over town.
Our other appetizer was ceviche ($8.50). You can order this with shrimp, snook, or a combination of the two. I went with the snook. To my knowledge, this is the only hermaphrodite fish that I have ever eaten. Regardless, the ceviche is excellent. The lime is intense, an excellent foil to the buttery avocado.
For main courses you have a choice of seafood or meat. We went with the Costillas en Adobe ($14.25) (Pork ribs in red chile and plantain sauce served with jasmine rice). The tender pork fell off the bone and the sauce was complex and creamy in texture, but not overly spiced by the peppers.
The sauce for the Mole Mama Cata ($14.75) has more than 20 ingredients. The recipe was passed down from Doña Olga’s mother, Catalina. The unique mole is served over a tender duck leg. The mole is well-balanced– rich with chiles and a faint hint of unsweetened chocolate, but it doesn’t overwhelm your senses.
Wine and cocktails are provided by Nael Rodriguez, a 16-year veteran of Alberto Lombardi’s restaurant empire. The wine list is a work in progress so feel free to ask him what he has on hand. We enjoyed the Alamos Torrontes with our appetizers. Like most Alamos wines, it is well made and it was a nice match with the ceviche.
Something has to be said about the transformation in décor since the days of La Palapa Veracruzana. The floor is now acid-washed concrete. The walls are painted a refined, warm taupe and accented with frames of distressed wood that hide the bulbs which provide the ambient indirect light. The bar has an imposing belly-up-to-me character that matches the approachable, intriguing cocktails and impressive array of tequilas. Outside, the Mesa sign appears to be the work of a chic design house in TriBeca or Soho. Look for it. It’s just a short leap of faith and palate from the Bishop Arts District to Jefferson and Beckley. Raul and Olga are waiting for you. And he’d like to make this restaurant his only job.