Zócalo bills itself, at least in part, as a “tequileria.”
The zesty house margarita will set you back just $6.50 while the $30 Cadillac, a high-octane mixture of 25-year-old Don Julio tequila and 100-year-old Grand Marnier, is as pricey as a good bottle of wine.
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If cars reflect personalities let me disclose that I typically drive a Prius, but I sometimes decide to throw caution to the wind and take the Caddy for a spin. The joyride is smooth but short. I am disappointed that the classic margarita glass is overfilled with ice leaving the cocktail feeling skimpy and then, sadly, watery.
To waste such exquisite aged liquor is out of character with the rest of Zócalo’s menu, which offers value. The $6.50 margarita made from El Jimador Blanco and triple sec more than satisfies, and with well-portioned and flavorful entrees that mostly range from $13 to $16, Zócalo hits a price point that is likely to satisfy recession-weary diners with a taste for adventure.
On the corner of 48th and Jefferson streets on the Country Club Plaza, the Zócalo space has been vacant for nearly three years since the closing of Mi Cucina. Partners Tony Durone, a Kansas City lawyer, and Chris Ridler, owner of the Martini Corner hangout Sol Cantina, gutted the interior. A revolving door whisks guests into a modern space with an elevated dining area featuring elegant open-sided, high-backed banquettes and mod light fixtures.
Three big-screen TVs are spaced around the bar. On a Saturday night, the setting is very adult, with plenty of tight-fitting cocktail dresses in evidence. On a Sunday evening, as Chiefs fans relax at the bar, the occasional baby stroller is not out of place.
One of my female dining companions tells me she is already smitten with the mussels, having ordered them twice before. A much better measure of a Mexican place, a male friend insists, is the depth, interest and inherent heat of the salsas. Indeed, traditionalists will be comforted by the strength of the tacos, enchiladas and empanadas, but more adventurous eaters likely will gravitate toward contemporary entrees, such as chorizo meatloaf, chile and ale braised short ribs or pepito and sweet mustard tenderloin served over polenta with a poblano nage, a chile sauce enriched with butter and cream.
Calamari is another of those ingredients that doesn’t automatically make you think Mexican. It’s also ubiquitous, to the point of being a turnoff for many diners. But Zócalo serves one of the most memorable versions of the appetizer I have tasted. Lightly breaded and greaseless ringlets are served with what our waiter refers to as “terrorized” carrots, referring to the long process from peeling to plate. Matchsticks are pan-seared until al dente then rubbed with chile spice, sautéed again, then sweetened with agave. A chile-marinated lime half that has been lightly broiled adds a thoughtful garnish, as well as a not-too-hot habanero aioli for dipping.
Moving on to ahi tuna nachos, I’m surprised to find the silky tartare partnered beautifully with the fresh guacamole. The layered fish-and-dip rests on a base of saffron rice and is topped with a slightly sweet, slightly acidic mango salsa. A fork-worthy appetizer, the chips with cheese seem like overkill but are easily ignored.
Still, the kitchen needs to keep an eye on technique. The mussels read like a dream, cooked with bits of chorizo, roasted potato and mustard greens in a savory tomato and chile cream sauce. Unfortunately, the broth is gritty.
From the traditional portion of the menu, the hongos tacos, a vegetarian version that would satisfy most carnivores, is a standout. The filling is a mixture of herbed mushrooms, roasted corn and goat cheese wrapped in fresh corn tortillas. The tacos come with saffron rice and heirloom beans, this time of year mostly the Jacob’s Cattle variety. The naturally tougher skins on these beans pay off, allowing them to absorb liquid and seasonings without disintegrating.
You can’t really go wrong with the empanadas, either. Sturdy yet flaky dough is filled with slow-roasted pork, spinach, carrots and salty white Chihuahua cheese, and then sealed with the pressure from fork tines. Three piping hot postcard-sized turnovers are topped with a shredded arugula salad and a smoky poblano nage. Instead of an entrée, next time I will order them as an appetizer to share.
All of the pricier specialty entrees are interesting and well-prepared. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the chile-and-ale short ribs. The tender Angus beef is braised with morita chiles and served with caramelized sweet potatoes and a side of braised Swiss chard with spiced crema. Many of the dishes included a side of greens, a standout in a genre rife with a sea of orange rice and lifeless globs of refried beans.
The last note of any meal should make a sweet impression. Skip the churros, which are limp and unappetizing, in favor of the moist tres leches cake. Or substitute a Skinny Margarita. For an extra dollar, it’s sweetened with agave.