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But is the food at Zócalo enticing enough to lure diners back for repeat visits? There, so far, is the rub.
Ridler and Durone might earn time and loyalty thanks to that de rigueur window of opportunity: brunch. And Zócalo's breakfast burrito, with a filling that includes braised short ribs, eggs and caramelized sweet potatoes, seems tailored to the Brush Creek set. On the Saturday morning I stopped in with a friend, I was so torn between that and the chorizo gravy with biscuits that I panicked and ordered something else entirely: huevos rancheros with slices of tender skirt steak and outrageously good fried Yukon Gold potatoes. "They're not fried," our server corrected me. "They're sautéed in olive oil and baked off in our oven."
My friend Bob surprised me by not ordering a brunch dish — I mean, the price includes a cocktail, so what was he thinking? — and going for a bowl of guacamole for breakfast instead. That's a fine idea, but this concoction was, sadly, not extraordinary. He followed up with the tortilla soup, which was the disappointment du jour: a thick, almost pasty tomato-based concoction, served lukewarm. The menu promised roasted chicken, grilled sweet corn and lime juice. There was plenty of tender chicken, but the corn wasn't grilled, and it needed a lot more lime.
The mood at our table improved when dessert arrived. The puffy little flourless chocolate cake, smothered in a blanket of gooey caramelized banana slices, was a nice consolation.
For my second visit, I took Zócalo a table full of challenges: one epicure, one picky eater, one Tex-Mex fan (he likes In-a-Tub tacos — need I say more?), and a former bartender. The ex-mixologist immediately ordered a blood-orange frozen margarita and proclaimed it to be a little heavy on the pomegranate liqueur.
We needed cool beverages for that meal because we ordered the salsa trio as a starter — chips and salsa aren't free here — and the tortilla chips were so salty, we could barely tell the fiery tomatilla salsa from the milder, slightly sweet roasted-tomato-and-mango version. This kitchen uses heavy kosher salt, and the salt so dominated that entire experience, I couldn't begin to tell you what the third salsa, a smoked-morita-pepper creation, actually tasted like. To me, it was saline.
Things improved when the entrées arrived. I can finally say I've eaten a slab of chorizo meatloaf that I enjoyed. Nely drapes the well-done loaf slice with a poblano cream sauce that's the exact shade of a 1974 Amana refrigerator. The dish also includes fresh sautéed spinach. But the spinach, like those chips, was distressingly salty.
The picky eater at the table liked the chicken tinga tacos. But who wouldn't like spicy shredded chicken with glazed pineapple, grilled onion and spinach? His definitive opinion? "They were OK." (They were better than just OK.)
The epicurean found his empañada a little ... beige. The crust enfolding the pork, spinach and carrots was pleasingly flaky, but it needed a little punch, a kick not provided by the pretty but tasteless poblano cream sauce.
There are two ways here to order the hongos sandwich, with herb-roasted mushrooms, goat cheese, roasted corn and fresh arugula: (1) folded into a taco or (2) as a torta tucked into a soft bun. The Tex-Mex fan surprised me by ordering this vegetarian sandwich and loving it.
The ex-barkeep bases her opinion of any Mexican restaurant on the quality of its chile relleno. I don't use that particular bellwether myself, but I was intrigued to see whether Zócalo would pass muster. From a purely visual standpoint, like most of the pretty dishes served here, the stuffed, battered and fried poblano scored high. The tempura crust was light and feathery, the heat of the pepper tempered by a filling of sweet corn and cow's-milk Chihuahua cheese. I liked the dish a lot, but the former drink slinger had hoped for grease and glop and was dismayed by their lack.