Zocalo is the new Mexican restaurant that recently opened in the space vacated years ago by Mi Cocina. I was so happy to see another independent restaurant open on the Plaza and it was time that building saw new life. The good news is that it’s been packed since day one. It’s attractive and lively. The bad news is the owners have some work to do to keep customers coming back.
The first time I tried Zocalo was right after it opened, and they were slammed. The servers couldn’t keep up nor, did it seem, could the kitchen. With the exception of the crab cakes with corn relish and a spicy aioli, which were very good, the food was mediocre at best. The salsas were bland and lacked complexity, the tortilla soup was pretty but tasted like burnt chile sauce, and the tacos were uniformly tired and unremarkable. No one in our group of six had an interest in returning, but I couldn’t get a good read on the restaurant based on just one visit, so I made myself give it another try.
My second impression was definitely more favorable, but I would still maintain that food is not the focus of Zocalo. With two outdoor patios (including one that was creatively carved out of the back alley), and a huge bar, the owners are going after the singles and drinking crowd. It’s unfortunate (but smart) that Frida’s owners chose to leave the partnership before the establishment opened, having recognized that the other partners were seemingly more interested in creating a happening scene than an authentic Mexican restaurant.
This time there were four of us and we started with guacamole and chips, a substantial portion but not exciting. The avocado dip had been freshly made but lacked seasoning and spice. The Ahi Nachos sounded interesting on the menu but looked unimpressive on the plate, owing to the dearth of ingredients. Diced raw tuna sat atop a saffron rice mold with guacamole, a bit of mango salsa and a few trickles of cheese sauce on the surrounding tortilla chips. It got a passing grade, but barely.
Though the carnitas tacos were dry, the chicken tacos were more successful. Shredded chicken in a corn tortilla was accompanied by a bit of pineapple, queso blanco, serrano and chipotle. Tacos are served with rice and beans, the best part of the meal. The beans are soupy and have a kick, and the saffron rice has flavor and a nice texture.
We also tried the chicken enchiladas which come with half red and half green salsas. Though the sauces are definitely the Tex-Mex variety, I was pleasantly surprised by their flavor and zip. It’s the best entrée I’ve sampled.
In the sandwich category we tried the chicken BLT and a Cubano, both of which were served on soft, fresh rolls. The chicken was moist and plump, and the sandwich was quite substantial. The cubano was not traditional in that it was not griddled and pickles were not part of its make up, but this rendition was quite tasty. Fat slices of pork tenderloin were layered with ham, melted swiss, arugula and Habanero mustard. Both sandwiches were accompanied by crisp cubes of fried potatoes similar to what you’d see at breakfast with an omelette.
Service was also much better the second time around, a sign that the servers are learning their way around the menu and getting the training they need to be competent and attentive.
Were this restaurant located anywhere else, I would have serious doubts as to its long-term viability. If it had to fill the large dining room with hard-core foodies, they’d be sunk. But nights and weekends of party or movie goers may give the restaurant enough followers to sustain it. The owners spent a good deal of money revamping the space; I hope they devote equal attention to what goes on in the kitchen.