New York City's streets offer more than their share of miscellaneous food. But somehow, when used in a restaurant context, the words "street food" remain evocative. They conjure not boiled beef dogs and hot roasted nuts but a world of exotic, bargain-priced, authentic treats.
Macondo is the latest restaurant to promise its customers the enchantment of pedestrian fare. The name comes from a town in Gabriel Garcia Márquez's magic-realist novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude," and accordingly, the environment is a strange interpretation of tropical fantasy — fresh pineapples suspended from the ceiling, walls lined with exotic jarred fruits — with the concrete grubbiness of a Lower East Side sidewalk. The seating is at too-high bar stools or low-to-the-ground lounge tables; a few of the bar stools extend out onto Houston Street, where hardy customers can dine at a counter window with their backs to the passing crowds.
Chef Máximo Tejada prepares small plates of varying Latin origins. The menu is large, with a dozen categories of food in a somewhat overwhelming array. As at Rayuela, Mr. Tejada's more upscale restaurant down the block, the staff has been prepped with a spiel: Here, it's about how tapas are meant to be shared, so please order several, and "the drinks are tapas-style too," their portions and prices ostensibly slightly below average to foster sampling. In reality, $7.50 for a medium juice glass full of liquor and fruit juice is not a particularly compelling bargain. Dropping the price to $5 might produce the dramatic fever for sampling that Mr. Tejada hopes for. A sweet-salty-sour concoction of tamarind and tequila is a vivid winner; plenty of others, such as a bland slush of avocado, mezcal, Midori, honey, and heaven knows what else, sound much better than they taste.
Every item on the menu is priced in a narrow range of around $10, but some are mere nibbles, while others are dinner-size. I expected my taco order to be the former, but four small tortillas messily crammed with shredded lamb or pork ($14) turn out to be rather a lot of food. The meats are well seasoned, the pork fatty and roasted, the lamb slow-cooked and tender, but the tacos are a bit plain, their sprinkling of onions and cilantro an austere garnish. A majority of the food here is like that — tasty, to be sure, but with a flat flavor palette and a minimum of nuance.
Crunchy, oily flatbreads — called cocas, like the Catalan ones they loosely resemble — make pretty comprehensive meals, too. The best is the "Buenos Aires" ($14), whose lavish toppings include hunks of skirt steak as well as two kinds of melted cheese, white and blue. Sandwiches, or bocadillos, come in pairs for easy sharing. There's a pair of barely Latin burgers ($10), a deal if not a delight, and a pair of dripping sandwiches crammed with braised short ribs ($10), juicy meat whose fatty stringiness, it turns out, is not at its best when hand-held.
Among the actually tapas-sized tapas, there's a superb mofongo ($10), balls of mashed plantain served with crisped pork belly in a savory pool referred to as "bacon sauce." A group of croquettes "a la lolita" ($7) oozes appealingly with mushrooms and figs when its fried shells are cracked open. A plate of calamari ($9) is one of the only spicy dishes at a remarkably heatless Latin restaurant: The squids are batter-fried and then glazed with a chile-honey sauce for a sticky, greasy, hard-to-resist treat.
But I haven't even mentioned the arepas, the sweet Brazilian meatballs, the ceviches, the terrific Peruvian octopus salad, the steak empanada — it's a fun menu to explore. For all its stylistic variation, the steady repetition of elements such as beef, figs, and mushrooms can get a little dreary, especially in the absence of bright, spicier complements. But this is a party-minded snacking restaurant, not one for deep study. By the same token, come prepared for kitchen slowdowns at busy times, and raucous parties who've sampled a few too many tiny cocktails.
Macondo (157 E. Houston St., between Allen and Eldridge streets, 212-473-9900).