The Pan American Contradiction

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A restaurant for the vegan meat-eater locavore globehopper in all of us

By Regan Hofmann

In the ever-shifting neighborhood creep of Downtown, it seems nothing is what it's supposed to be anymore. Little Italy has become Chinatown, Nolita has become Soho and Soho has become Times Square. Walking from block to block you're not quite sure what you're going to get-but you can be sure it's not what you thought it was supposed to be.

Enter The Pan American at 202 Mott St., by all appearances a sleek, shiny restaurant of the New Nolita bent. There's just enough signage on the all-glass front to make sure you know you're in the right place, but not enough to be so outré as to advertise itself. A turquoise gleam emanates through the window, and a glance at the menu gives an impression of the sort of Nuevo Latino cooking that came up quickly a few years ago and is de rigeur for those model types who want to prove they eat food by nibbling at miniature empanadas.

But look again. On closer inspection, the menu reveals a curiously vegan streak, listing snacks such as carrot chicharron and kale chips. Then again, entrées include a plate that includes both skirt steak and oxtail, so it can't be just a meat-free zone. Accompanying some dishes are health-food buzzwords like quinoa and kale, but you can also get fried chicken and taquitos, so it can't be an ascetic bore. And peer through the door at the bar; tucked in with the shifting lights and gleaming white surfaces are a rainbow of jars and bottles, unlabeled, moonshine-like-housemade infusions and syrups that prove they won't just give you a model-approved vodka soda.

There's a point at which you have to let go and let god at The Pan American, when your instincts have been so thoroughly baffled that you find yourself willing to try anything. This is as it should be. When your server recommends a Rosey Palmer from the list of original cocktails, order it, even though it's vodka-based and you prefer gin, even though you can't stand sweet, fruity drinks and it comes in a pretty shade of pink. In fact, the tea-flavored vodka is balanced by the bracingly tart hibiscus (housemade, of course) and the result is compulsively drinkable.

Order those chicharrons, too, though you hate the idea of meat substitutes and would rather vegans stop trying to fool themselves. Don't worry, here the word chicharron is used as a frame of reference more than a literal interpretation. Like their fried pig skin namesake, the sweet, smoky crisps make a perfect bar snack.

And don't write off the more straightforward Latin American dishes, even if you catch a glimpse of the chef, looking straight off the Wisconsin dairy farm. His salsa verde, which accompanies the cheese-and-chile taquitos, reveals he's no pretender; it's bright and vegetal, with a citrus edge that hides a serious kick underneath.

Entrées are fully conceptualized plates with a number of components, at least one of which is invariably a curveball. Duck breast, seared to perfectly rendered skin and tender, medium-rare center, was served with collard greens and quinoa in a recognizably Native American bent-and then there was the pineapple gooseberry glaze.

This topsy-turvy ride closely mirrors the path of the restaurant's chef, Harry Stoehr, who arrived in New York via the Midwest, a stint in Napa and a turn with Daniel Boulud. Like a true (adoptive) Californian, he wants to provide vegan and gluten-free food that doesn't scare away everyone else-why not? He came up in working farms, so an affinity for his ingredients comes naturally. And years of cooking family meal in kitchens has him comfortable with the spectrum of Latin American flavors and traditions (rumor has it his tamales are better than most abuelas'.) Everything that can be made in house at The Pan American is, even some improbable ingredients like garlic powder and dulce de leche. You'd be worried he's going to run himself ragged, if you weren't so busy devouring everything he puts in front of you.

The next time you're walking around the space between Houston and Canal, trying to sort out why the block with the Italian Christmas lights has three Chinese groceries and a designer eyewear boutique but no Italian restaurants, you're in just the right frame of mind for The Pan American. Forget what you think you know is around the next corner-just dive in and go along for the ride.

Photo credit: A nuevo Latino eatery with vegan flair in Nolita.

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