They had us at the salsa.
Chef-owners Mary and Gregory Russell definitely show their love of Mexican cuisine and culture in the food and décor of Las Tarascas en Zocalo, 3600 Lancaster Ave. The intricate handpainted tables and chairs depicting traditional Mexican pueblo scenes give the space a nice vibe and set the stage for a relaxing and tasty dining experience.
Even if all you do is order cocktails and appetizers or pop in during lunch, when the prices and portions are smaller, Zocalo delivers. (Actually, if you are on a budget, those might be your best courses of action considering the entrée prices.)
The top-shelf El Jimador margarita ($7.50) is a great way to kick off any fiesta, as is either of Zocalo’s fine sangrias: the classica ($5.50), with brandy, red wine, cinnamon, cloves and citrus fruit; or the De Verano with silver tequila, white wine, seasonal fruit and berries. Other must-try flavors of margaritas include tamarind, peach and ginger.
The guacamole ($8) is the house favorite, and it deserves to be. It may not be the flashiest of presentations, but it wins in flavor thanks to a delayed spicy kick that gives the taste buds a pleasant tingle long after the tasty house-fried tortilla chips are gone. Even better is the pico de gallo ($7), which has a tangy bite and an excellent texture.
The ceviche ($10) is another clear winner. The spices and the lime juice do a great job of complementing the white fish without overpowering it.
If you’re looking for a cheesier way to kick off your meal, the queso fundido ($9) is a sure bet, with Chihuahua cheese baked to a nice molten consistency. A number of options can be added to the mix, with the crumbled chorizo a front-runner. Really, any dish involving Zocalo’s well-seasoned chorizo is a good idea, such as the chorizo con aceitunas ($9.50) an appetizer with sautéed with fresh tomato, green olives, onion, cilantro and white wine.
Speaking of meat, vegetarians might want to stay in appetizer-land, because once you cross over into entrée-opolis, the pickings get extremely limited.
Besides the very chip-worthy salsa, there is the sik-il-pak ($8), a dip made from pumpkin seeds, olive oil, garlic, cilantro and jalapeño, or the quesadilla with sautéed mushrooms ($9).
There’s only one meatless entrée, but when you have an enchilada stuffed with spinach, caramelized onions and cheese ($19.50), what else do you need?
The entrées at Zocalo are good, but whether or not they justify the expense is going to depend entirely on how you roll.
To Zocalo’s credit, its sauces are excellent. Lesser establishments tend to pull back on the spice factor and let diners sauce it up after the fact. Not here. There are no bottles of Tabasco on the tables, nor would most diners require it: even the most daredevil of spice freaks will find enough heat in the sauces as they are.
The green tomatillo sauce that accompanied the pollo santuario ($20), a grilled chicken breast topped with Chihuahua cheese and chorizo, hit all the right spots and still allowed the flavor of the meat and cheese to come through.
The molcajete cuanajo features a choice of steak ($23), chicken ($20) or shrimp ($23) with nopal cactus, grilled onion, queso fresco and a roasted tomato jalapeño sauce. Shell out the extra pesos for the steak or shrimp — you won’t be sorry.
If you have any room left, the dessert menu is very tempting. Just try to resist the pastel de chocolate ($6), a flourless, bittersweet chocolate tort served with ice cream and raspberry sauce. The cajeta con nieve ($6) is another must have: a Mexican classic of vanilla ice cream layered with goat’s-milk caramel.
The Russells definitely know how to build a strong menu. If you’re looking for good food and a pleasant vibe, Zocalo is worth planning a fiesta around.