On the surface, Atla is an unapproachable restaurant. Hosts are quick to remind you if you’re late. Tables in the bare-walled Noho space are packed tightly together. Servers answer your questions while glancing around the room like they’re on a bad date. And one shrimp taco costs $15. But if you give this bright, all-day spot a chance, you’ll experience food you’d usually only find at the highest-end restaurants in New York City.
Walk by Atla at 3pm on a weekday, and you’ll see a couple from Copenhagen or Condesa casually drinking agua frescas and eating fluke aguachile made by some of the most famous chefs in the world. Who do these people think they are, and how is one of them pulling off an oversized plaid blazer, you might ask yourself. But while they gaze into each other’s bright green eyes, take a look around.
Notice the guy in gym clothes at the walk-in-only bar having a bowl of chicken soup, and the family sharing churros and chilaquiles by the floor-to-ceiling windows. Atla isn’t just for consultants who put their sunglasses on the table during a late lunch. Anyone can enjoy this place, because from 11am to 11pm, Atla is as casual or upscale as you want it to be. What won’t change is the food.
Even though Atla is from the same chefs behind Cosme in Flatiron and Pujol in Mexico City (two very expensive restaurants), eating at this Noho Mexican spot doesn’t require a ton of time or money. That may sound unlikely considering the $15 shrimp taco. But it has so many explosive textures and flavors - shrimp cooked in chili oil, bitter hoja santa, creamy guacamole, crunchy fried cheese - that it’ll make your brain buffer like it’s trying to download a movie on airplane wifi. It might be the single best taco in the city, but you also won’t need more than one. This sensation continues with dishes like chicken soup and fish milanese - so that after just a plate or two per person, you leave feeling both full and perfectly decent - a phenomenon as radical as political compromise.
Like the food, the drinks here are far more involved than the casual space would suggest. The salado verde cocktail, for example, is spicy, savory, and even crunchy thanks to finely chopped nopal. It’s as memorable as most things coming out of the kitchen, and even though it’s made with plenty of mezcal, it’s somehow refreshing enough to trick you into drinking three before speaking at a middle school career day. That’s probably not a great idea, but no matter the situation, getting drinks and a bite at Atla is an opportunity to experience world-class versions of both without even committing to a full meal.
The fact that Atla isn’t a fussy undertaking will make you see that couple sharing 3pm drinks and fluke aguachile differently. They may be the embodiment of the five-year plan you’ve had for the last 20 years, and you may fantasize about going on ski vacations with them even if you don’t know how to ski, but they’re here for the food just like everyone else.
Deciding whether or not to add mushrooms to your quesadilla here could result in your table resembling a chalkboard in A Beautiful Mind. On the one hand, the side of salsa verde is all you really need, with the lightly charred housemade tortilla and dense Oaxaca cheese. But the earthy maitakes are phenomenal, so unless you’re also ordering the maitake entree, you should add them in the quesadilla.
When this multi-layered taco hits the table, you know there are going to be fireworks. They go off as soon as you take a bite, when the queso, guacamole, hoja santa, and shrimp hit you with a nearly overwhelming, but still extremely pleasant variety of flavors and textures.
If you want a vegetarian taco, get this one. Sure, it’s your only option, but it’s also good enough to inspire you to incorporate fish sauce and pineapple into everything you cook.
When boring, deceptively unhealthy lunch salads have you googling the benefits of intermittent fasting, try this one at Atla. It’s lighter than any of the dressing-drenched ones you get at fast-casual spots, but the herbs, chili oil, and pool of acidic orange juice leave you happily ready to throw in the towel by the time you finish it.
This is one dish where the intense flavors are too much. The tomatillo-based sauce with burnt chili goes very heavy on spice and acid to the point that it’s hard to tell if you’re eating fluke or flounder.
The food at Atla makes you feel good about what you’re eating. This chicken soup most of all. Crunchy mixed vegetables, handfuls of cilantro, and not-too-salty chicken broth make it so you can eat an entire bowl by yourself without feeling like a down comforter after a half-finished cycle on tumble dry. And yet it’s also rich enough to replace ice cream or Tylenol PM as your go-to remedy after a sh*tty day.
Calling this a bowl of mushrooms is like calling Evel Knievel a stuntman. The crispy, slightly sweet flash-fried ones on top cover up spicy, sauce-drenched others underneath. Eat them with a fork, or stuff them into a warm tortilla. This is one of the best dishes here.
The acidic sauce that seeps down from the lobster spread into the thick layer of guacamole makes this tostada delicious, but you can barely taste the lobster that’s supposed to justify the $30 price tag. Get a shrimp taco instead.
Many dishes here, like the fluke and the lobster tostada, could be displayed at The Met, and this fish milanese is not one of them. It’s just a slab of fried fish with a bowl of chopped cucumbers and tortillas. But the salty crust flakes away from the juicy fish when you cut it with a spoon, and the cucumber salsa would be a must-order if it were offered as its own dish. This should be on your table.