Listen, I'm all for reinvention. Look what it's done for Madonna, William Shatner and Newt Gingrich. Everyone needs a second act, if not several more, to tell his or her story. And the terrific little dining spot at 3063 Southwest Boulevard — for years an unassuming Waids restaurant — is second act not only for that location but also for Lorenza Gutierrez.
Poco, as the petite Gutierrez is known to her friends and fans, was the reason that many diners were drawn to another restaurant that's still in a constant state of reinvention: The Grille on Broadway at 3605 Broadway, which later became Poco's Latin American Grill, then Boca Boca, and is now known again as The Grille on Broadway. Gutierrez was the chef for all those incarnations before she packed up her recipes last year and opened her own Poco's on the Boulevard in the old Waids.
Gutierrez was shrewd to start out slowly, serving just breakfast and lunch (including many popular Waids dishes, such as waffles and biscuits and gravy) before getting her liquor license and launching dinner service in August.
I've eaten breakfast in the spiffed-up dining room many times over the past few months and have been impressed by the food — a surprisingly good eggs Benedict along with exceptional Mexican dishes, such as a chorizo-filled omelet — and the diverse clientele. One morning, I watched the artist Stretch hold court at a six-top while an elderly couple nibbled on sourdough toast and scrambled eggs at another table. And in the center of the restaurant, a quartet of bleary-eyed A-list gays nursed their hangovers on strong coffee and huevos rancheros.
Gutierrez serves a fiery tomato-based salsa with those breakfast dishes, but a different salsa arrives with baskets of chips during the dinner shifts on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. This jade-green sauce is a mesmerizing blend of avocado, cilantro, red onion and jalapeño; it's the reason that Carol Ann and I plowed through two baskets of chips before dinner one night.
Carol Ann, an interior designer, was charmed by the simple decorative changes that Gutierrez and her family members had made to the formerly dowdy Waids. Poco has painted the walls pistachio and red and installed new tables and chairs and carpet. During the day, the place has a diner feel, with paper napkins and plastic tumblers; at night, tables are draped in white linen and set with burgundy cloth napkins and fresh red roses in glass vases.
Carol Ann admired the attention to aesthetics in the décor and on the plate. She was impressed by a pretty little heap of mixed greens with slices of cucumber and radish, bits of fresh oranges and grated jicama. I would have been tempted to splash the rest of that wonderful avocado salsa on top of it, but it was already dressed with a smooth cilantro vinaigrette.
Gutierrez's nine dinner entrées are all as elegant and upscale — even the fajitas platter — as the dishes she used to prepare on Broadway. They include a grilled rack of lamb (which has always been a Gutierrez specialty), a risotto entrée and chicken mole. That night there were also two fish specials, including a grilled escolar. This meaty fish, also known as snake mackerel, is banned for consumption in Japan, where it's considered toxic — but I didn't remember that in time to tell Carol Ann before she happily ordered it. (I wasn't worried; I've eaten escolar half a dozen times with no complaint.) She and I both enjoyed Gutierrez's beautiful preparation of the fish, which arrived resting on a bed of fluffy couscous and dolled up with a tarty mint-and-mango salsa. "It's out of this world," Carol Ann gushed.
Pretty to look at and even better to eat were the excellent Yucatan tacos: bits of pork cooked in chipotle peppers and chopped orange, served on a sheath of cool lettuce instead of tortillas.
Carol Ann finished the meal with that night's mango crème brûlée, topped with the traditional burnt-sugar crust with the addition of a few ribbons of fresh chopped mango — organic mango, the waitress informed us. It looked delicious, but I was too full to indulge.
When I returned several nights later with John and Skip, I let them eat most of the chips and salsa.
Dinners here include a choice of soup or salad, so John and I opted for the soup: traditional Mexican pozole. "I don't usually like hominy," John said after a few spoonfuls of the hearty combination of pork, onion, garlic and chiles, "but this is really delicious." I'm with John when it comes to hominy — cooked dried corn kernels without hulls — but I, too, loved Gutierrez's soup.
John insisted on ordering the Yucatan tacos, but after tasting everyone's dinners, he confessed that he preferred mine: a fat, cheese-stuffed chile relleno. (Gutierrez uses mozzarella and fresco in her lightly fried poblano.) "Usually a chile relleno is so bland," he said. "This one has lots of flavor."
Skip had wondered what kind of beef he would get in the inexpensive 8-ounce Kansas City strip that Gutierrez uses for her Bistec a la Mexicano. "Do you think it will be tough or chewy?" he whispered.
He shouldn't have worried. The tender, juicy, medium-rare hunk of meat was blanketed with chopped cactus, tomatoes, onion and jalapeños. "It's not the greatest cut of beef," Skip said, "but it's so cleverly prepared that you don't care." And we all liked the whipped potatoes delicately flavored with poblanos.
I sipped a cup of good coffee while Skip and John shared that organic mango crème brûlée. When I learned that Gutierrez makes the super-rich tres leches cake herself, I was tempted to order it. But I remained firm in my resolve not to end my meal on such a decadent note.
"How can you not eat dessert?" John asked.
I'm trying to reinvent myself as a slightly thinner person.