This is a cautionary tale about first impressions and foodies. The protagonist is Riccardo Ullio’s new Lupe Taqueria (905 Juniper St., 678-904-4584). The antagonist is the foodie community, including its bloggers and critics like me.
I long ago learned that a first impression of a new restaurant – the usual subject of this column – is not reliable if the visit turns out to feature extremes. In such a case, particularly when the extreme is negative, I usually go back, hoping for better. Contrary to popular opinion, most critics don’t enjoy thoroughly panning a restaurant, which is typically a huge investment and provides a livelihood for its staff.
On the other hand, I think the effect any one critic has on a restaurant is short-lived. Of course, if the critic does pan a restaurant that ends up failing, he gets the blame. Typically, though, the restaurateur has not heeded any of the criticism directed his way.
As every foodie in town knows, it would be hard to find anyone as passionate about Italian cooking as Riccardo Ullio. His Sotto Sotto and Fritti are both among the city’s best restaurants. It was a surprise when Ullio acquired space on Juniper Street to open a Brazilian juice bar, Beleza, and a Spanish restaurant, Cuerno. The latter died a few months ago and Beleza evolved mainly into a cocktail lounge.
It was a surprise again when Ullio announced plans to turn the Cuerno space into a taqueria. It makes sense in that Mexican taqueria food has retained its strong popularity in our city and is particularly accommodating of the lower prices diners are seeking. But who knew Ullio knew anything about Mexican food?
Luckily, his chef de cuisine at Sotto Sotto for the last 10 years was Acapulco-native Darbelio Palma. He was put in charge of the kitchen at the new restaurant and developed a menu of straightforward dishes: tacos, quesadillas, guacamole and a few larger plates such as a chile relleno and chicken in mole sauce.
Initial response – meaning the first week – was pretty negative. The irascible blogger Foodie Buddha wrote a blistering review after one visit a few days after Lupe opened. He used the word “disgusting” to describe several dishes. Meanwhile, I heard plenty of buzz that described the restaurant as mediocre.
My own first meal there fell into the slightly-better-than-mediocre genre. I was annoyed right away by the fact that the restaurant – a taqueria! – wasn’t permitting diners to buy individual tacos or mix-and-match them on plates with rice and beans. So I knew however good the meal was, I was going to need to return to sample the tacos.
I’m not a huge fan of guacamole, but a starter of three versions of the stuff –traditional, mango and poblano, pineapple and mint -- was good enough if a bit subtle in its different riffs. A classic dish of queso fundido with chorizo was acceptable but a bit bland too.
For an entrée, Wayne ordered the chile relleno – a roasted poblano pepper that’s battered and fried, stuffed with cheese and typically served with a tomato sauce. To our shock, the chile was stuffed with queso cincho, an aged, rather hard cheese with a strong flavor. Although I’ve eaten plenty of roasted queso cincho, I’d never encountered it in this treatment.
I won’t say it was bad – Wayne loved it, actually – but it was disorienting. My tastes for Mexican food were shaped during my two years in Houston and the better part of a year in Mexico. So, when I eat Mexican, I’m also eating nostalgia. I didn’t much care for the chile’s extremely heavy coating of red sauce, either. That’s a perfectly common way of serving a chile relleno, but I prefer it served over the sauce to preserve the fried coating.
My own dish was chicken mole. I had mixed feelings about it too. The Springer Mountain chicken itself was delicious. The mole – whose type was not identified on the menu– was a very thick, zingy version of mole rojo. Mainly we encounter mole poblano in our city and, just like the cincho cheese, this threw me off a bit. All dishes are served with frijoles refritos and rice.
The one unequivocally good course of our first meal was dessert – a flan and a mango crème brulee. Both were the work of Aaron Russell, the renegade former chef at the Chocolate Bar. (He is now in charge of desserts at Ullio’s restaurants.)
I was disappointed with Lupe but knew I needed to suspend judgment until I revisited to sample the annoying plates of three tacos of the same type.
What a difference three days make. The tacos are now available a la carte and the chile relleno is stuffed with queso fresco. The two “exotic” guacs have been eliminated. And some side dishes have been added.
What happened? Did Ullio decide to kiss Foodie Buddha’s ass? Not exactly, although he admits he decided to be completely open to criticism, including the Buddha’s. He has asked all diners to fill out a form evaluating the food and service since the day the restaurant opened. The most common complaint, he said, was the taco policy. The next most common was the use of the queso cincho in the chille relleno.
Actually, though, he and chef Palma wanted to continue using the unusual cheese, but could not find any. The original supply was sent him by a friend in Mexico and they’ve been unable to find more.
My entire meal on this second visit was much better than our first. Wayne ordered the ceviche for a starter. It’s all tilapia but works quite well, juicy with lime and well seasoned. I decided to order the quesadilla with cheese, corn, mushrooms and poblano strips for an appetizer. It was a huge portion and quite tasty. Don’t order it as an app unless you plan to share it.
We tried all of the tacos but one. And, honestly, they were all good. I’ll get the one problem out of the way first: the kitchen needs to used doubled corn tortillas. The singles simply do not hold up with the juicier tacos.
I ordered tacos of beef tongue, carnitas and barbacoa of goat. I was especially surprised by the tenderness and flavor of the tongue – unusual around our city’s taquerias. Ditto for the goat with tomatillo and avocado salsa. The carnitas featured a green sauce, grilled corn, poblanos and jalapenos – fantastic.
Wayne stuck to the less exotic tacos – portobellos with poblanos and cotija cheese; ribeye with Chihuahua cheese, red sauce and cabbage; fish (more tilapia) with cilantro aioli; and sautéed shrimp with jalapenos and more of the cilantro aioli.
For dessert we devoured a new dessert – a goblet filled with Aztec chocolate, piquant with chilies, topped with foamed mango cream. More!
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