Across the street from the tiny mocha nymphet is a flashy hombre: the imposing El Vez. The restaurant's namesake is taken from the Mexican-born performer who borrowed both his style and his title's syllables from the Graceland King, Elvis Presley. In life, El Vez is primetime glam, in death, he'll become a cross-cultural sidenote in pop history. How fitting then, that restaurant culture-clasher Stephen Starr would borrow El Vez's name for the hip semi-Mexican eagery. So not unlike the man, El Vez restaurant is hipper to style than to authenticity. (This is not say El Vez doesn't bring some great chow to the table - 'cause it does.)
Four years from the opening of Starr's restaurant, Lolita opened its own doors. The opening was risky, as the other Latin-influenced restaurants saw minimal success, and the one that did, El Vez, was across the street and hip as ever. To attract attention, the new Latin spot had to flash a little leg, be a little risque, so to speak. Thus, Lolita, Nabokov's coquettish female, became the namesake of the authentic BYOT (Bring Your Own Tequila).
Now food with a storyline's all well and good, but does Lolita deliver the goods? Yep (read below for more detail). It's authentic Mexican with flare, even though the chef's name is Marcey.
It was a balmy night, with a spring breeze, so we sat outside. The restaurant doesn't occupy more than one storefront, but it's deep - holds at least forty, more if weather permits outdoor seating. The tables outside wobble ever so slightly, and the sidewalk slants some, but the young Tequila drowning crowd appears as comfortable outside as inside the candle lit room.
Tequila. Maybe the main reason people flock to Lolita is the BYOT theme. Lolita provides the glasses and one of several tasty fruit or herb mixes, and patrons bring the Tequila. Alright already, what about the food?
Reading the appetizers, or Bocaditos (small bites), I envisioned splashes of color - golden beets, green avocados, white jicama, orange-ginger glazed pork. As visually mouthwatering as any menu could be. My dining compadres and I were compelled to start with the guacamole con topos mixtos, a basket of platain, sweet potato, and corn chips with a side of creamy green guacamole, a crunchy jicama slaw, and a chunky salsa. The sweet potato chips burst with flavor, but the corn chips were just good.
The queso fundido, a dish similar to one I had enjoyed thoroughly at El Vez, was again a superb bubbly mixture of meat (chorizo and flank steak) and two rare and wonderful Mexican cheeses (chihuahua and oaxaca). Small warm tortillas were provided to ensheath the mixture, creating a hard-to-beat spicey pocket. The wraps were cheesey, but not cumbersome to eat - like so many dripping tacos and quesadillas are. For lighter but still multi-dimensional fair, my dining partners recommend the ensalda mexicana, with its contrasting textures and eye-catching appearance.
I'm sure many like to simply mix and match appetizers for their meal, but the entrees (platos fuertos) are equally as enticing, if not as authentic. Aside from their Spanish titles, the entrees' English descriptions are very similiar to dishes found at other chic-BYOs. It reminds me of dishes American Iron Chef's might create: a fat cola-chipotle glazed pork chop with papaya salad. The enchiladas verdes de champinones y queso con camarones en chipotlados seemed like a dish that combined authenticity and variety.
The platos was certainly a feast for the eyes. The enchiladas, herbed rice and beans were smothered by a thin pea green (tomatillo) mole. Microgreens, diced tomatoes and julienned radishes were piled high atop the mole and grilled shrimp. Unlike my entree at Bistro 7, the sides weren't just boring afterthoughts (although the pile of greens and veggies weren't more than a garnish). The herbed rice was well-done and well-suited for savoring the excess mole, and the grilled shrimp had bite but no unwanted bounce. In fact, the sides nearly overwhelmed the enchiladas burried under the mounds of flavor. I saw the monterey jack cheese and felt the corn tortilla texture, but mostly the filling was muted.
Even with people-magnet Capogiro gelateria across the street, Lolita's dessert menu is reason to stick around. Not all of the desserts were created equal, notably an interestingly flavored but too chewy bread pudding, but I really enjoyed my light finish: mexican chocolate and kahlua flan with toasted almond phyllo and cripsy cannella. I should say I was expecting more chocolate flavor than I tasted, but I enjoyed the bits of cinnamon and the heady kahlua flavor. The chocolate flan masqueraded as a silken version of a spiked-coffee drink.
When I began composing this review, I realized the most lasting impression I held from my meal at Lolita was visual. The eyes feast at least as well as the belly does. The colors exude freshness, and the dishes are as appealing for their creativity as they are for their authentic contents. The food is good to great -- there was nothing I didn't like -- but I'd recommend Lolita mostly for its cool healthy vibe and fun and colorful presentations.