Yerba Buena, the Latino inspired East Village hot spot on Avenue A and East 2nd Street in NYC is not a place for fussy dining nor is it a restaurant that will be described as "ingredient centered." Driven by Executive Chef Julian Medina's pan- Latin menu, it is a place for fun, hearty dining and drinking.
The space is tight, dark and somewhat mysterious. The food is bright, flavorful and satisfying. Medina's food at Yerba Buena is not about having individual ingredients shine through. The Chicharron de Calamar really could have been anything but calamari under the blue corn meal crust and the tomato salad with tamarind vinaigrette, as the squid was not particularly identifiable by taste. In other renditions and places that might have been a problem for me, but here, squid or no squid, the overall pleasure of the dish remained high. The fried items were appropriately crisp and did not have any sense of bad frying oil or over-frying that can mar more common preparations. The sauce had wonderful flavor balance with a little bite and not too much sweetness, a common problem with preparations like this. Ordinarily, I insist on having a pronounced squid presence in fried calamari. While that may have made this one even better than it was, it was still quite tasty.
Tacos de Pescado
The other fried items were also well fried and tasty, especially the Papas Rellenas, potato mushroom croquettes with truffle jalapeño sauce. While I did not get much of a sense of mushrooms in the croquettes nor any real "stuffing" like I have had in Peru, they remained immensely satisfying and delicious in the comforting way the best potato croquettes are. We all loved them. The sauce added a nice touch. While truffle oil is often looked down upon, it has its place as a relatively inexpensive flavor enhancer. It worked really nicely here.
The ceviches were highlights, especially the hamachi, which was prepared, as billed, in a Peruvian "Limeño" style with citrus, miso, jalapeño, jicama, cucumber and crunchy Peruvian corn kernels. The Ceviche Mixto with octopus, shrimp, clams, rocoto, cilantro and maiz conxha was also quite tasty, with the octopus proving to be a particular favorite component. The ceviche juice from both dishes was excellent. That from the Mixto was bright, but took on a lot of broth from the clams, mellowing the acidity compared to the absolutely wonderfully bright Limeño, which was the best ceviche I have had in some time. It brought back wonderful memories of Peru.
The Limeño ceviche juice, or leche de tigre was so tasty, I asked the manager if they made cocktails with it. He said that in fact they have made them with Pisco, though it is not on their bar menu. He generously offered to make some for us and comped them. They were bracing and wonderfully balanced. While it may not be to everyone's taste, I would return there just for them even if everything else was not as good as it was.
Speaking of cocktails, that is clearly a major strength of the restaurant. In addition to the wonderful leche de tigre and Pisco, we sampled a few others. The Hemingway with flor de caña 4 yo rum, maraschino liqueur, fresh lime juice and fresh grapefruit juice really grew on me and the Pisco Guava was a nice variation on the classic Pisco Sour but the cocktail that really stood out was the Poquito Picante, which consisted of Tanqueray gin, jalapeño, cilantro, cucumber, Cointreau and fresh lemon juice. It had great flavor and balance and true to its name was just a bit hot, enough to give it a kick, but not so much to overwhelm the rest of the drink. It is a winner.
The main courses were good, especially the Lechon, suckling pig with yucca puree, habanero mojo de ajo and chicharron. The meat was fully porky, moist and tender and the supporting elements added depth without overshadowing the pork. Another surprisingly good dish (a surprise in that I did not expect it to be anywhere near as wonderfully good as it was) was the ginger rich arroz y frijoles, Peruvian chufa-style fried rice. Given the long and deep tradition of Chinese cooking, I really shouldn't have been so surprised. It was delicious.
The bottom line is that Yerba Buena has good, fun food at reasonable prices. We had a blast!