Muy endearing

Palenque is a ruined Mayan city in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. Palenque is also a cocina Mexicana across from the Target near Fulton Avenue. Sometimes, given the size of the parking lot Palenque shares with Gatsby’s, the smart play is to park at Target and jaywalk. It’s worth the danger—for a number of reasons.

Previously mentioned here is the exhilarating inventiveness of Palenque’s habanero salsa, which tingles lips for 30 minutes, but pleasurably, because it’s leavened with pineapple and orange. The salsa was created to accompany cochinita pibil, a tender, orange-juice-marinated shredded pork plate. But owners Georgina Bernal and Felix and Xavier Garcia are more than happy to provide the inspired concoction in lieu of the salsa bar’s verde and roja, which sports a less-intensive but lingering burn. For the pepperish devotee, there’s a veritable trough of pickled jalapeños as well.

Leave the spats and morning coat at home; it’s order-at-the-counter, chair-and-table-with-napkin-dispenser, grab-your-cutlery-by-the-salsa-bar utilitarian. But as someone sagely noted: “You don’t eat ambience.” What is offered to eat at Palenque is both fresh and smartly prepared. Is it cuisine of Chiapas? Nah, Georgina grew up in the Distrito Federal but, like Chiapas, fruit plays a part, and not just in the habanero dice or the cochinita pibil.

There’s a pineapple-like zip to the tacos al pastor. A ceviche tostada, at $3.50, which boasts chopped shrimp, avocado, tomato and cucumber, is sparklingly crisp and sweetened with a cherry lilt. While a more lime-laden taste is traditionally ceviche-esque, Palenque’s version is a bright palate cleanser. Perhaps even dessert. While not an option—although if someone asks, it’s doubtful Georgina would refuse—a mound of ceviche on a little bed of iceberg lettuce would make an ensalada magnifica.

The woodsy mushroom chile relleno is a fresh take on an old standard. More epazote or oregano or cumin, maybe, would liven it up a tad. Equally fresh is the curtido—sliced cabbage, carrot and onion salad accompanying the cochinita pibil. Vegetarian or carnivore, appreciate the fact there’s no lard or oil on the beans. Vegetables are grilled instead of fried—a distinction pleasantly not lost on the diner.

Even the flautas don’t taste greasy—something of a feat—and are presented on a bed of shredded lettuce with zigzags of cheese and mayo rivaling the handiwork of the Lilliputians on Gulliver. Kinda don’t want to tear into it—for like a second or two.

The carnitas tacos are smoky and not overcooked. The fish/shrimp taco is topped with a memorable mayonnaise sauce whose lingering carries a wisp of chipotle. The enchiladas verdes, chicken or cheese, are awash in tomatillo. Most of the entrees can be eaten à la carte or with rice, beans and tortillas. For the most part, à la carte is plenty. Recommend the rice over the beans, if one is to be sacrificed. (Perhaps its that no-lard thing.)

Several visits are close to Palenque’s 8 p.m. closing time. Georgina is gracious and accommodating each time. She and her partners interpret a returning customer as a sign they are doing something right, which they are. They want to hear how the food tastes. In fact, after a couple visits, they begin offering suggestions: “Have you had the carnitas taco? Do you like ceviche?” They are assured that, from now on, based on their performance, they will handle all future ordering.

Requests are readily accommodated, like bringing buckets of the habanero miracle salsa, which, based on the minuteness of the dice, must be quite a labor-intensive hassle to create. When she’s working behind the counter, it isn’t uncommon to hear Georgina sing along with the tunes on the radio—muy endearing. The niche Georgina says she is filling is a Mexican restaurant—without some cheesy Aztec name—that offers homemade meals instead of combo platters. She and Palenque are succeeding.