El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette
Words & Images: Tag Christof
February 28 2016
Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette requires no introduction. Since it opened on Stanton Street on NYC’s Lower East Side, it has become something of an institution for creative types and is, bar none, one of the best places in the city to run into friends, long lost colleagues, or that dude you know from Instagram.
El Rey’s head chef, Gerardo Gonzales, is a semi-permanent fixture in the cozy cafe and he’s become a good friend of ours. His imaginative, light, health-conscious and somewhat whimsical menu is among the best lunches (and now dinners) in town – everyone from The New Yorker to Bon Appetit and the New York Times love it, too. We stopped by this week to say hey to Gerardo and to chow down on the ace chia bowl he tells you how to make at the end of this interview.
Hometown: San Diego, CA
Current Residence: NYC
I take my coffee: black
Drink of Choice: Tea of all sorts
In a few words, my style is: bright, vibrant
My sunday ritual is: Usually at El Rey handling the craziness that lunch brings to a 350 sq ft. cafe
El Rey is a little ray of sunshine in New York. You serve excellent yet approachable food, the warm weather decor feels like a mini escape from the city, and the vibe is always super convivial – without fail, we always run into good friends here. What’s the story behind the place?
El Rey has been in continuous evolution. It started out just with coffee and baked goods. I was, initially, the baker. Using techniques taught by my business partner, Nicholas Morgenstern, who was an extraordinary pastry chef in his own right, but with flavor profiles I grew up with. Quickly, we realized the neighborhood wanted something more. Inspired by my favorite lunch counter, B&H dairy kosher on 2nd ave., we added the luncheonette and started making foods influenced by California, Baja, and the middle east. The combo proved popular and his since grown to include a dinner service with really great wines.
Has the neighborhood changed much since you guys started up?
A lot of growth has happened in our little block. With more hotels and being in the center of a lot of other neighborhoods, our clientele has expanded throughout NYC and internationally, even.
Tell us a little bit about the food philosophy of El Rey.
I traveled a lot in my late teens and early twenties. A lot of those experiences have really impacted how I view food and what I like to eat. While living abroad, I was really interested in the connection between Mexican food with Middle Eastern Influences. Having grown up on the border to Baja California, I have always enjoyed the simplicity, yet boldness of flavors through spices. At the end of the day, all of the food, pastries included, follow a palette of including spicy, savory, sweet, salty, and sour.
What was your path into food. Did you find a gift in the kitchen at a young age?
I always enjoyed cooking at a young age, but I remember how much I was fascinated by restaurants, in general. To the point that I used to draw out the floor plans for how my restaurant would look. Later in life I went down the photography route, but after working in restaurants to make money, I was totally captivated by hospitality and the art of sharing food and experiences.
What are your single favorite and least-favorite ingredients?
Favorite ingredients: Lemon, Za’atar, sumac, alleppo, smoked salt. Pecans and nuts, in general.
Not my least favorite by any means, but sometimes I get a little tired of avocados. I grew up with them and the level of popularity they have acquired gets me a little exhausted. But that is more from an operators point of view. Whenever I eat one, I’m always like “Oh yeah, that’s why!”
Desert island scenario: the single dish you’d eat every day.
I can eat our farro salad every day. But I’m going to have to side with fish tacos from Ensenada on this one.
What do you get up to when not in the kitchen?
I’m usually biking around on my days off. Nothing clears my mind more than just doing that.
You’re a bit of a traveller, right? What cuisines or cities or restaurants have most influenced your work? What’s at the top of your bucket list for future exploration?
Berlin is definitely up top. Not that it was the most astonishing, culinary wise. However, when I was there at a young age of twenty and ate nothing but döner kebab, I started to get interested in food on a personal level. I saw a lot of similarities between the Turkish street food and the street food I grew up with in Southern California and Baja Mexico. Aside from the similarities between Turkish cuisine, culture and people in Germany, and those of Mexican culture in the United states (or any dominant immigration population) I really saw similarities in the flavor profiles and food itself. I became obsessed with exploring more of these thoughts by trying to trace art, food, etc. from Mexico to Spain to the Middle East.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I think 2016 will be a good year. A lot is on the horizon, and a lot more hard work. I am just thankful for the opportunities that have come my way and hope to take them all into new directions.
Chia Seed Breakfast Pudding
1 1/2 pints Almond milk
1 cup Coconut milk
1 pinch Salt
¼ cup raw chia seeds
a dash of sweetener (agave, honey, etc.)
Pro Tip. Put all ingredients in a kitchenaid mixer on low for about 15 minutes OR put all ingredients in a sealed container and shake vigorously (like a bartender) for 15 minutes. The key, when doing Chia seed, is to make sure you are constantly agitating. Chia seeds can get clumpy if you don’t mix them right. You want them all to plum up right, and constant agitation will ensure they soak properly.
Top with granola, fruit, honey, or whatever you like.
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