Just as in English, the Spanish language has more than one way of talking about talking. The closest synonym for “to talk” is hablar; but if you want to quote something specific that somebody said, you use decir. And if you’re referring to a casual conversation – a leisurely chat with friends around a dinner table, say – the verb is charlar. Its noun form, charla, is about as close as you can get in Spanish to craic: that lovely concept in Gaelic that means the atmosphere of friendly talk and engaging storytelling that makes the best pubs and restaurants especially appealing.
So there’s something very appropriate that the newest eatery to occupy the space at 127 Main Street that formerly housed the late lamented Irish pub and restaurant, Shea O’Brien’s, is named La Charla. One might not think that New Paltz really needs another Mexican restaurant at this point, but La Charla serves a previously unfilled niche. It’s a Mexican place that’s a little fancier than the others in town, a little more authentic, where you won’t mind spending a bit more money for a meal over which you can linger with your favorite people and savor the conversation along with the cocktails and the gourmet food.
La Charla’s owner is Ernestina Martinez, born in Oaxaca; her husband Luís grew up in New Paltz, but is native to Durango. Thus, between them they’ve got Mexico covered from north to south, and the menu — viewable online at http://lacharlarestaurant.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/lacharla-menu-2017.pdf — reflects that diversity of cuisine. The couple’s secret weapons in the kitchen are their respective mothers, whose old-country recipes form the backbone of the new restaurant’s offerings. Nearly everything is made on the premises, including the amazingly fresh, chunky salsa and thin, salty chips that aren’t baked until just before opening time each day so that they’ll stay crispy.
While many of the menu items read like standard fare for a Mexican restaurant — tacos, enchiladas and so on — the execution much more closely resembles food that you would actually find in a non-touristy town south of the border. Taco shells, for instance, are quite small, thin and flexible, but piled high with the filling of your choice. When the New Paltz Times paid an exploratory visit, two days after last week’s Grand Opening event, your humble correspondent ordered the duck tacos — Carnitas de Pato ($14) — and found them tender and delicious, the meat finely shredded and topped with jicama escabeche and pineapple habañero salsa. My dining companion had the Enchiladas Coloraditas ($16), with a filling made from braised short ribs of beef and a superb maroon-colored molé sauce, artistically drizzled with melted queso fresco. Fancier entrées run as high as $26.
For an appetizer we ordered the best ceviche I’ve ever had, Mazatlán-style ($11), made from shrimp and tender bay scallops in a flavorful lime marinade. We were most curious about the Chapulines del Monte ($15) — Oaxacan-style dried marinated grasshoppers, served over tacos — but were reluctant to commit to a full meal of them. When Ernestina and Luís came around to our table for a bit of charla and heard about our hesitation, they quickly sent over a sample. Verdict: Prepared this way, grasshoppers have a taste and texture much resembling corned beef and are surprisingly tasty. Try them out sometime soon and you’ll have an excuse to quote Kate Capshaw’s only good line in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: “I had bugs for lunch.”
La Charla’s beverage menu features an interesting-sounding array of house-special cocktails. I opted to try the signature margarita, which was huge and tasty; my only complaint is that I got distracted by the food and let too much of the ice melt, watering it down. If drinks are all you’re after, check out the capacious new bar, over which hangs a soffit covered with gorgeously colored tiles imported from Mexico. On the opposite wall is painted a mural of three large figures of praying kings from the country’s ancient Nahuelt culture; the swirls issuing from their mouths are speech bubbles, according to Ernestina. (They’re having a bit of charla, you see.) In the background, contemporary Mexican pop music plays — not the live mariachi band featured at the Grand Opening. It’s a cheerful space with an artisan/hipster vibe where your friends visiting from Brooklyn will feel right at home.
La Charla opens for dinner at 5 p.m., and at 9 a.m. on weekends for brunch. For reservations, call (845) 633-8276. Find out more at http://lacharlarestaurant.com or www.facebook.com/lacharlamexicanrestaurant.