The Mexican Evolution: Zocalo Mexican Grill and Tequileria

North of the border, Mexican food and drink is often partying fare. Tequila shots, pitchers of margaritas and big bowls of chips and salsa signify good times. Zócalo Mexican Grill and Tequilería has all that and more.

With a cheerful, festive atmosphere, familiar favorites on the plate, a long list of spirited beverages and wallet-friendly prices, it’s easy to have your own personal fiesta any night of the week.

That likely accounts for the crowds that often fill the bar and restaurant. Its location in the heart of the East Fourth Street entertainment district doesn’t hurt either. Zócalo isn’t exactly a newcomer to the neighborhood, but the spot is enjoying something of a rebirth.

It got off to a rocky start when it opened a year ago. To be blunt, what they were serving wasn’t very good. So this spring, Trifecta, the management company behind Zócalo, brought in chef Aarón Sanchez as a consultant to help with a menu makeover and staff training. The burgeoning celebrity will also make regular visits to oversee the operation.

He has plenty of culinary credibility. His mother, Zarela Martinez, is a recognized authority on traditional Mexican cookery, an author of three books on the subject and a famed restaurateur. The 32-year-old Sánchez attended Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island, worked in some celebrated kitchens and was a James Beard Rising Star nominee in 2005. His two New York City restaurants, Paladar and Centrico, have gotten positive reviews. Our own Michael Symon called him one of the top Mexican chefs in the country.

Sanchez says his goal at Zócalo is to make good, honest Mexican food, and some of it is. The tortillas, both corn and flour versions, are marvelously fresh. (You can see the flour tortillas being made as you go downstairs to the basement seating area.)

The guacamole ($9.99) is prepared tableside to order, so you decide how much cilantro, jalapeño, onions and tomatoes go into the mix. It pairs well with a tequila flight (Best of Show, $12.99), which arrives as a trio of half-ounce pours presented alongside limes, salt and a traditional sangrita chaser made from tomato juice.

Moving on to the appetizers, Zócalo’s ceviche de camarones ($8.99) is not your usual marinated fish dish. This tasty version features cocktail shrimp in a lime-spiked roasted tomato broth studded with orange sections and chunks of avocado, and is laced with just enough spice to make your lips buzz. The slices of fried plantain are a handy tool for scooping up all the good stuff.

Empanadas ($7.99) — three small, crunchy dough pockets stuffed with slow-roasted pork — are another appealing opener. Slather them with the accompanying tomatillo avocado salsa and pickled red onions for something special. The same wonderful green salsa comes with the quesadilla ($8.99). Cubes of grilled flat iron steak, roasted poblano peppers, sautéed onions and cheese are the components of the beef version of this warm tortilla sandwich. It’s billed as a starter, but could easily be a light entree.

The sopa tortilla con limón ($7.99) is the only soup on the menu, and it’s a standout — a generous portion of chicken broth brightened with a squeeze of citrus and thick with bits of chicken, tomato, diced avocado and strips of crispy corn tortillas. I can’t think of a better winter warmer.

A Caesar salad ($5.99) might seem out of place on a Mexican menu, unless you know that it was invented by an Italian chef working in Tijuana in the early 1920s. Thanks to a nicely balanced dressing with just the right anchovy accent, this version is one of the best I’ve had in awhile.

I also give a thumbs-up to the enchilada tinga poblano ($9.99). These soft corn tortillas wrapped around braised pork are baked in a zesty red chile sauce. Another pleasing entree is mole con pollo ($14.99) — half a chicken in the house version of the unique sweet-and-spicy sauce said to date back to pre-Columbian cooking.

But not all of Zócalo’s dishes are executed as well, and a few fail to deliver even a passable experience. Despite the buzz about what Sanchez brings to the table, he’s not here at the stove nightly, and it shows.

I tasted the sopes ($6.99) at a press event introducing the chef to the media, and they were great. But on a subsequent visit to the restaurant, these cornmeal tarts were unpleasantly dense and dry, and the pureed bean filling was in short supply. A chicken tamale ($8.99) suffered from similar problems.

Someone in the kitchen has a heavy hand with the salt too. It’s most noticeable in the calamares frito ($8.99), which were also greasy and tough, the fish tacos ($12.99) and the carnitas ($10.99) — an entree of crispy pork shoulder that was disappointingly overcooked and juiceless.

The habanero and Achiote salsas that came with the meat substituted burn for flavor, and the sides of rice and beans included with entrees are lackluster.

The drinks proved to be hit-and-miss as well. Margaritas are mixed up in a kaleidoscope of colors and intriguing flavors like prickly pear and cucumber pepper, and they are celebration sized — big, even bigger, and let’s-share pitchers. But on two separate visits, our drinks arrived lukewarm. More ice was a quick fix, but it melted fast and turned our drinks watery. Another cocktail — the Zócalo Breeze, also warm — had plenty of juice but seemed short on the Cuervo Gold.

The servers are friendly and accommodating but not especially skilled. My table was left dirty with spilled food and sauce drips between courses, and plates were actually scraped before being removed. A meal in the bar when the restaurant was not busy went better.

Sweets ($5.99 each) strike a more positive note. Sanchez calls his pumpkin flan, which has a texture more reminiscent of cheesecake than custard, a dessert that’s like a goodnight kiss, and I have no argument with that. Sopapillas con Miel —holeless honey-glazed doughnuts — are Spanish-speaking beignets, and there’s nothing to dislike about these.

But for my money, the best finish of all are the churros. Those in the business of predicting food trends say they may replace cupcakes as the next hot thing. The minibatons of fried dough get their wonderfulness from distinctive ridges that trap cinnamon and sugar in the tracks between them. The Mexican chocolate sauce that accompanies them here is so good that I couldn’t resist drinking what was left when the churros were gone. Another way to end a meal — or a night on the town — is a cup of Mexican coffee ($6.99), a heady brew of java, Kahlua and tequila.

As a dining destination, I’d say Zócalo is still a work in progress. But if you’re looking for a place to kick back, hang out and have fun Mexican-style, this is it.

Zócalo Mexican Grill and Tequilería, 2071 E. Fourth St., (216) 781-0420, Sun-Thu 11:30 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri & Sat 11:30 a.m. -midnight; 
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