new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Zocalo: Foofoo Mexican (But not bad)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Zocalo: Foofoo Mexican (But not bad)

1801 Capitol Ave
Sacramento, CA 95811
(916) 441-0303

Zocalo adheres to the genre of Dolled Up Mexican Food, generally served in salubrious surroundings by attractive people who attempt to sell you expensive tequila. This is not always a bad thing - Zocalo has obviously found its niche, catering to Sacramentans with money who enjoy drinking muddled blackberry cocktails.

The decor is lovely: the huge space adheres to an old-style (but classy) Mexican theme, complete with a water tank in the entryway with floating roses. Everything from the light fixtures to the statuary has been planned out and looks great; the lighting is kept at a mysterious low that offsets the gentle glow of your surroundings. The bar is huge and well stocked with a variety of exotic liquors. (And people attempting to pick up other people.)

How about the food though?

Zocalo plugs itself as a purveyor of regional Mexican cuisine, which is reflected on the menu: you'll see things like mole, carnitas, camarones in chipotle sauce et all, which is a step up from the cheese-drenched gloppy things many Mexican restaurants content themselves with.

As at all Nice Mexican Restaurants, a bowl of decent tortilla chips immediately arrived along with three tasty salsas: a black bean dip, a red chipotle salsa, and a tasty green. These were delicious, and I also appreciated the free refills that appeared without prompting.

We began with starters: the ceviche de guaymas with fish ($9) and the empanadas with chorizo, cheese, black beans and avocado aioli ($8.50). The ceviche was an attractive presentation, served on individual curved-up tortilla chips and sprinkled with an attractive blend of pico-de-gallo and chopped avocado. Portion size was certainly hefty, and it was a tasty rendition of one of my favorite dishes, although I could have stood for a little more flavor.

The empanadas were super-rich and quite delicious, with a crispy pastry crust giving way to an oozing, meaty center. The avocado "aioli" I found bizarre - it tasted more of extrude from a bag grocery store guacamole then of anything that resembles either good guac or, well, aioli. I'd give it a pass. Or maybe just substitute it with some, you know, real guacamole.

I went with the salmon salad with honey-chipotle dressing ($13), which I know is a wussy choice (but I was jonesing for some salmon, be kind, be kind.) It arrived on a big old plate full of fresh field greens, black beans, red pepper, and corn, and I proceeded to drench it in the nice fresh salsa provided table side, ignoring the sugary sweet dressing. The salmon itself wasn't very good - it had been overcooked and came out rather dry, although admittedly I prefer my salmon rare and pink and freshly kilt. I wish I ordered something else.

My dad went for the pollo en mole ($16.5), a traditional dish featuring chicken cooked in a sauce composed of chilis, chocolate, and sesame, served over rice with a side of grilled plantains. I'm a mole snob, but this was a pretty tasty version with a nice, complex flavor and a good hit of sesame, although I would have preferred a little more heat. The chicken was tender and tasty, and the plantains had retained their characteristic starchy sweetness. It's a slightly watered down mole, but it does retain much of the appeal of the original.

I also caught a glimpse of the tacos de cazuela ($13.5), a decadent looking casserole of steak, cheese, and vegetables, served with rice, beans and corn tortillas. This looked cheesy and good, although it seemed a bit watery. I will try it someday and report.

We passed on desert, although there's a range of interesting looking Mexican specialities - tres leches, flan, so on and so forth. There's also dirty hippie free trade coffee, although I really don't need any caffeine coursing through my bizarre little system at 8:00 PM. Someday.

Is Zocalo worth a visit? Certainly - it's presenting pretty good Mexican food with an authentic twist in a nice setting. As Real Thing Mexican food often is found only in venues featuring questionable hygiene, pissed off servers and blaring FUTBAAALLL games, this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you're trying to impress a date or simply want to protect your ear-drums. Try to dress nice and appear as 1. skinny or 2. affluent as possible. (Either or both will help with the bar scene.) Order some tequila and enjoy it for my 19 year old self, you jerk.

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