“I thought that a pulqueria would be a great concept for a restaurant. New Yorkers love Mexican food but no one here knows about pulque,” says Heather Tierney, co-owner with his brother Christopher Tierney of the pharmacy-themed Apotheke and now Pulqueria in New York’s Chinatown.
Down in Mexico City, pulquerias are bars dedicated to pulque, a milky, beer-like drink fermented from the sap of the agave plant. The ancient Aztecs called the intoxicating beverage “nectar of the gods,” and their priests drank it before performing their bloodthirsty rites.
After reading a travel article about a pulqueria Renaissance, the Tierneys ventured to the Mexican capital to visit pulque bars and taste the street food that would form the basis of their concept’s menu. When the space next door to the duo’s Apotheke became available, they decided to open Pulqueria.
Despite its out-of-the-way location down a set of stairs in a shady alleyway and the lack of a sign, trendy crowds found Pulqueria when it opened late last fall. Flickering candle light in the subterranean space reveals pre-Columbian stone-carved motifs on the walls, colorful tile flooring and thatched palapas overhead.
Naturally, pulque, imported from a secret source in Tlaxcala, Mexico, is the focus of the beverage menu. The straight stuff is $6 a glass, but most customers go for one of the Curados ($12), cocktails with pulque as the base. The drinks are garnished with a pineapple leaf and a slice of the featured fruit or vegetable. The most popular is Watermelon, made with fresh melon and lime juices, pulque, mescal and the herb epazote. Curados made with veggies such as green tomatillos and jicama are also popular calls, says Heather. Groups can also opt for a Maceta ($54), a liter of Curado served in an artisanal pitcher.
Margaritas are also available by the Maceta ($60) or glass ($14) in few variations, including Tamarind-Mint and Hibiscus. Most popular among the cocktails is the Negroni Mexicano ($14), a riff on the classic made with mezcal, Aperol, sweet vermouth and house bitters.
Several Mexican beers are on tap ($7) or by the bottle ($8). Draft beers star in the two Micheladas; the Classic ($10), mixed with lime and spices; and the Marinera Especial ($13), featuring Clamato juice and garnished with a shrimp skewer.
Depth and Breadth
Keeping to the agave theme, Pulqueria boasts about 120 Tequilas, and 40 mezcals, one of the biggest collections in New York. “People are just starting to catch on to mescal,” says the owner. What used to be considered poor-man’s tequila is acquiring interest and cache. “It seems like new ones pop up on the market every month,” remarks Heather, “we taste them and add the good ones to the list.” As is traditional in Mexico City, the spirits are served in snifters; prices range from $10 to $65. Curious customers can sample from three flights of each, or design their own flight.
“We only pour Mexican wines,” declares Heather. Available by the glass ($9 to $15) or bottle ($30 to $58), the nine L.A. Cetto wines all hail from the Baja. “The wines are delicious and an incredible value,” says Tierney.
Authenticity carries over to the non-alcohol side, with Aguas Frescas ($6) in Tamarindo, Horchata and Jamaica (hibiscus) flavors and assorted Mexican cane sodas ($4). At evening’s end, guests can enjoy slow-drip, Oaxacan fair-trade coffee or the more traditional Café de Olla, simmered with cinnamon and spices, both $5.
Pulqueria’s food menu is just as authentic and eclectic as the drinks. Executive chef Nacxitl Gaxiola who hails from Mexico City, knows his hometown’s street fare. Lengua (tongue) Taco, a Tostada de Pata (with pickled pig’s feet) and Sesadilla (a quesadilla filled with brains) will satisfy expats and aficionados.
The restaurant just launched brunch and Sunday dinner menus, featuring time-honored dishes like chilaquiles and eggs motulenos. One of their takes on the Bloody Mary is the Sunny Maria ($14), a tequila-based version with grilled yellow tomatoes, housemade mustard bitters and a celery salt rim.
Pulqueria’s clientele is a mix of young downtowners, well-traveled older people and Mexican expats who drop in for a taste of home. “We had the director of tourism for Tlaxcala come in one night,” enthuses Heather, “and he thanked us for exposing pulque to wider audience.”