A decade of distinctively upscale flavor
Since its opening 10 years ago, Zocalo has always done its best to break the molds. Its unlikely location in Powelton Village is a bit farther from the epicenter of University City than most restaurateurs might have risked, even if it does have parking.
More important, Zocalo's upscale menu of authentic flavors traveled far beyond mass-appeal Tex-Mex stereotypes, proving with its moles and picadillos that there was more to Mexican cooking than goopy beans, cheese and nachos. Despite today's nuevo Latino craze, raising awareness of Latino flavors, that trendy concept consistently sidesteps Mexico for fear of brushing up against the lowbrow images of Chi-Chi's and Taco Bell. And Zocalo has been left with very few competitors (at least locally) in its effort to refocus our image of Mexican cooking.
As with any longstanding restaurant, however, changes in staff and ownership have brought their own challenges, stirring up grumbles in recent years that Zocalo had lost its edge.
The return has been a welcome breath of new life for Pestka, too. The chef, who sold her share in Zocalo two years ago in order to pursue horse training, has worked stints at three other restaurants in the interim before signing up for a homecoming recently with current Zocalo owners Joe Ferzoco and Mark McBride.
Her renewed enthusiasm was often apparent in our two recent meals. Ancho peppers were stuffed with a tangy shredded-pork picadillo stew, punctuated with slivered almonds, raisins and green olives. A salpicon fish hash of diced salmon and swordfish displayed the tangy, almost Mediterranean flavors typical of Veracruz, ripe with tomatoes, capers, olives, and a distinctive tint of allspice. Deliciously creative ravioli stuffed with homemade chorizo revealed a hint of Mexican cinnamon against a spicy sweet broth of reduced orange juice and peppers.
A generous saute of woodland mushrooms tossed with creamy garlic and smoked tomato dressings made for one of the most satisfying salads I've tasted recently. And raw scallop ceviche was full of complex layers of texture and flavor, from bitter lime and orange zest to silky mashed sweet potatoes and crunchy fried corn.
Pestka's cooking is somewhat reminiscent of Rick Bayless' seminal efforts at the Frontera Grill in Chicago, although it never achieves the profound depths of flavor and culinary complexity. Her menu, nevertheless, is full of authentically inspired flavors - nutty sweet mole sauces for pork and homemade tamales, a pre-Columbian pumpkinseed dip called Xik-l-Pak (say "sickle pack") that tastes like a Mayan Power Bar, and numerous heat shades of chili pepper that only occasionally run out of control.
Even her renditions of stock Mexican fare such as tacos are generally a cut above the pack - moist chicken is marinated in tequila, lime and musky achiote before grilling; steak fajitas gain extra zip from a rub of lime and ancho chili powder. All come with those wonderful warm rounds of soft, fresh tortillas. And despite the pretentious gesture of charging "market price" for guacamole (in our case, $7), the coarsely mashed avocado dip was truly great. We only wished that there was more.
This was not an uncommon sentiment for other items on the menu, representing perhaps Zocalo's greatest weakness - value. Though affordable compared to other fine-dining venues in the city, with no entrees over $20 (and a small, but affordable wine list), Zocalo is more expensive than most Mexican restaurants. So when the kitchen goofs with skimpy portions or inconsistent preparations, it cannot help but begin to feel pricey.
The fundido Oaxaqueno of broiled Oaxacan cheese, for example, was meagerly portioned in a creme brulee dish for $8 (not to mention a bit dull in flavor). Three fried masa cups called sopes surtidos, each no bigger than an inflated thimble, did not contain enough of their tasty fillings to give them much interest.
Disappointing entrees, though, were a little more cause for concern. Salmon grilled in a corn husk topped with a creamy tomatillo sauce was surprisingly bland. A tamale of the day stuffed with potatoes had a great mole sauce, but virtually none of the advertised chorizo sausage. And the menu's single bravado dish, Shrimp From Hell!, showed up with mealy shrimp that were not worth the extra effort of peeling.
I'm all for the thrill of spicy food. But the potent habanero and serrano pepper inferno that assaulted the shrimp had a boring one-dimensional heat that eliminated any potential for interesting flavors. It seemed a step backward into machismo for a kitchen that intelligently explores the subtleties of chili peppers elsewhere.
Excellent dishes, such as the spinach enchiladas, show how smoky chipotle peppers can wield considerable heat without overwhelming the good taste of a vibrant spinach filling flecked with fresco cheese. A masa dough chalupa, fried into the shape of a canoe, cradled crawfish tossed in a creamy blush of a cocktail sauce that tingled with just the right amount of sting.
The dessert selection also had its highs and lows. The cactus-shaped brownie was dry as the desert. And the rice pudding was overly sweet and sticky.
I much preferred the flans - the chocolate-Kahlua flan was rich and creamy; the classic flan doused with liquidy dark caramel juice. The ice cream sandwich, big enough for two, was also surprisingly good, with nicely spiced pumpkin bread around homemade vanilla ice cream. And the El Rey chocolate mousse, shaped into a pyramid and showered with cocoa, was indeed the king of the desserts.
Craig LaBan's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.