Upon hearing Julian Medina of Toloache and Yerba Buena fame was opening a Nuevo-Latin style diner in Chelsea, my original thought was, "Oh boy, another expensive comfort food place in Manhattan." Luckily I was way off.
The first time I walked into Coppelia, it was calm for a Thursday night and my party of two easily found a table along the banquet. From the looks of the joint, it was a regular old diner: a blue-and-white checkered floor, pleasing butter-colored walls, royal blue-and-white vinyl booths and counter space complete with cakes resting on their proper stands. What it didn’t have was that horrible florescent lighting found in so many old-school establishments—a fine tweak for an eatery where you might want to bring a date or late night hookup you don’t want to scare away.
Coppelia doesn’t have a liquor license yet, though our waiter promised it was coming soon. Instead of booze, I settled for a large glass of thick passion fruit juice ($5.50) that was shockingly bitter and didn’t seem to contain any of the ginger our server boasted was in it.
The failure of the juice on my palate was quickly forgotten when the cup of sancocho ($2.95) arrived. Its rich, thick broth is comprised of yucca and plantain, and it came filled with tender chunks of potato and shards of beef shank, making this sopa more of a stew. The sopa de pollo ($2.95), chock full of slivers of chicken and mixed vegetables, proved thinner in texture but just as rich in flavor.
Off the starters menu, I chose the mac & chicharron ($8.95), which tasted like a Mexican version of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese—in the best possible way, although I didn’t need the alarmingly large, gooey chunks of pork belly it came with.
I did enjoy another pork dish, the Cuban classic pernil ($14.95), a hearty plate of roasted, shredded pork, thick hunks of cooked yucca and mojo, a sauce commonly made from onion, garlic, cumin, oregano and citrus juices. The supple pieces of pork came out perfectly in a large pile, and my only complaint was a lack of, well, mojo. Some extra limes mostly fixed that, yet the dish didn’t compare to the next entrée I tried, the lomo saltado ($15.95).
Lomo saltado is a typical Peruvian dish of soy sauce and vinegar-marinated sirloin—in this case, skirt steak—cut into strips over French fries, tomato, onions and rice. The version at Coppelia adds a bit of fresh ginger and spicy sambal sauce, which gives the starches and meat a smooth kick of chili and heat, but not enough to drown out the complex sweet, salty and savory essence of the beef. The fries get most of their flavor by soaking in the extra meat juices, and the rice acts as a mild cooling agent, making this common Latin dish a star on the menu.
Medina also does tasty things with shrimp, like his camarones diablo ($15.95), a plate of dark rum-glazed crustaceans with a mild tomato salsa, rice and tostones. For lighter fare, try one of the sandwiches (all $8.95). The Cubano is a delicious classic with roasted pork, ham, pickles, a dash of mustard and Swiss cheese; or, go for the Venezuelan-style arepa, which is a griddled corn cake sliced open and stuffed with a light, smoky chicken salad, avocado and salsa.
One would have to go back every day for months to try the dozens of items on Coppelia’s placemat-cum-menu, and as soon as the doors open 24-hours a day (soon, we were told), there will be even more opportunities. Until then, it still feels like a diner thanks to the all-day breakfast menu and daily specials (all $15.95), themed around a different Central or South American country.
Not only did Medina manage to find a niche in the city that hadn’t yet been met, but he also brings large plates of inexpensive, unpretentious food to a neighborhood that can use it. A refreshing change that even a Brooklyn girl will travel across the water to have again and again.
>> Coppelia 207
W. 14th St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), 212-858-5001.