One little spot on Avenue A, which seems to be perpetually shaded by sidewalk scaffolding, has housed a series of restaurants in just a few years. The latest occupant, Yerba Buena, is completely unassuming from the passerby's view, but packs a ton of excitement into the small space. To the constant icy rhythm of cocktails being shaken — excellent $11 drinks devised by Artemio Vasquez — the staff weaves among close-set dark wood tables, plying customers with complex, vigorous pan-Latin food.
Julian Medina, the executive chef, got attention for serving grasshopper tacos at his Hell's Kitchen Mexican spot, Toloache. Yerba Buena's menu has no such unusual fauna, but Mr. Medina's cooking still grabs attention, with an abundance of creativity and flavor. If one were pressed to find a general fault among the dishes, it would be that they err on the side of too much flavor — lots of salty, concentrated tastes that pound on the tongue, delicious but overstimulating. A starting snack exemplifies this, as a paper cone is stuffed with fried blasts of flavor: rounds of chorizo, meaty hunks of pork, pressed plantain coins, and breaded balls of yucca purée, all with a fiery salsa for dipping in case the flavor's not already potent enough ($9).
The classic Cuban sandwich of ham and roast pork, Swiss cheese, and pickles, is reconfigured here into a pizza Cubana ($12), with rich Berkshire ham and shredded suckling piglet heaped on a tender flatbread. It's a finger-food version, bright with flavor. Drippingly moist, savory clumps of braised short rib are stuffed into a pair of arepas ($12) along with creamy, crunchy coleslaw, for a messy, powerfully tasty snack that vanishes almost as soon as it arrives at the table.
A pair of empanadas ($12) pack together salty, earthy huitlacoche fungus with salty, tangy Chihuahua cheese in savory dough envelopes; a piquant green salsa gives even more complexity and intensity. Ceviche limeña — Lima-style — is one of the menu's few refreshing items, a tart plate of gently cured yellowtail with red onion, yellow Peruvian pepper, and sweet potato. It provides a fine break from the sometimes overwhelming gravity of the food.
A main course of lechon ($22) comprises a simple, substantial pile of pulled suckling pig meat, doused in an orange sauce of rocoto peppers that's vivid with heat and salt. Even more intense is a fideua ($22), the Spanish dish that's a relative of paella, made with small noodles instead of rice. Yerba Buena's fideua is soupy and fiercely salty, its elbow-style noodles excellently firm and interspersed with chewy ringlets of squid. A drizzle of hyper-garlicky aioli made with chorizo intensifies the flavor further. A couple of cockles and a shrimp arranged on top are the extent of the protein.
As for cocktails, strongly rose-scented gin and cactus pear purée are shaken together into a fluorescent fuchsia cocktail that's tart and fruitily mouth-filling. A sweet bourbon takes on ruddy color and sour potency from an infusion of hibiscus petals before it's frothed with egg white into an elegant, hearty fizz.
In a small mercy, desserts are rather less flavorful than the savory courses, and in fact can be skipped without terribly much cause for regret. Neither the hot, pale churros with dulce de leche dipping sauce, nor a made-to-order chocolate soufflé, is really unmissable.
Having weathered the comings and goings of other restaurants in the space, my hopes weren't high for Yerba Buena. The excellent food, drink, and service came as a distinct surprise, and a hopeful sign that this restaurant might last — especially if it can ever get out from under that scaffolding.
Yerba Buena (23 Ave. A, between 1st and 2nd streets, 212-529-2919).