To assess Zocalo, the stylish, upscale and ever-popular Mexican restaurant in midtown, it’s worthwhile to put it in context.
When I used to have lunch regularly at Paesano’s in 1999 and 2000, friends and I would occasionally look across Capitol Avenue at 18th Street and remark that the large corner building, empty and neglected, was rich with architectural details and waiting to be beautiful again.
By 2003, the beauty was on full display, with new large windows, a big bar and warm lighting. In what was once the Arnold Brothers car dealership, Zocalo opened and was instantly popular, setting off a flurry of momentum that continues to this day.
That former dead spot is now a focal point of our urban restaurant and nightlife scene. There’s valet parking and people everywhere. The building glimmers. The room is full of energy. The patio seating is perhaps the best people-watching locale in Sacramento. And there are new restaurants all over the place.
Turns out, 2003 was a significant year for area restaurants. In addition to Zocalo opening, Mikuni and P.F. Chang’s opened on 16th Street, Spataro on L Street (recently repositioned and remodeled as Hock Farm Craft & Provisions) and Lucca on J Street. In Roseville, the ambitious La Provence was taking shape and preparing to open. In Land Park, Riverside Clubhouse realized a $1.5 million renovation of the classic Hereford House and introduced its casual, approachable fare to the neighborhood.
Looking back, these restaurants formed a key part of the foundation for all that followed. These days, the streets and sidewalks are alive, and the urban landscape is far more colorful and energetic than those days of that empty, neglected building. For some of that, we can tip our caps to Zocalo.
Now, when you have the kind of elegant curb appeal that Zocalo has, you heighten everyone’s expectations, something owner Ernesto Jiminez seemed to understand. Back in 2003, he said Zocalo would have the kind of upscale Mexican cuisine previously unknown to Sacramento. He wouldn’t reinvent the cuisine, but he’d take it up a notch with flourishes on the plate, more involved techniques and richer flavors. The empanadas, for example, would look like an art piece when they came to the table, nestled on a stark, white-porcelain plate and resting in a vivid red sauce.
That was the vision and it was just interesting enough to draw crowds – that and the grand setting. But much has changed in the past decade. Remember context? This is a new, more competitive restaurant environment. While still a force and as popular as ever, Zocalo and its high-end ambitions have been surpassed significantly by the cooking at Mayahuel on K Street, even if the ambiance there doesn’t stack up to Zocalo’s.
The best part of the Zocalo experience just may be the building. It excites the senses and signals that something special might be on the way. Even the noise – the acoustics are awful – creates a sense of anticipation in diners approaching the restaurant. There’s a hum, a buzz. But surely those inside can’t be buzzing about the menu, as the food is mostly acceptable and only occasionally delightful.
Part of the problem is consistency and quality. During one visit, our carnitas were too dry and chewy. Another time, they were dark, glistening and delicious. A third time, all we could taste what seemed to be a vaguely citrus marinade, and the texture was nearly more mushy than meaty.
The main steak offering (Arrachera, $20.99) was a tale of two dishes – one tender and tasty, the other tough and bland. Our chile relleno was crunchy and fun to eat and the red chile pork was delicious. The conchita pibil ($16.99) was even better, an excellent example of a pork shoulder cooked to tender perfection and flavored with an achiote rub and habanero salsa.
Best of all may have been the fish tacos. Fish that is plump and battered and ample, on tacos that are nicely accessorized and delicious. The only thing holding them back from greatness are the ho-hum corn tortillas that look and taste mass-produced – rigidly uniform and rather bland. And at $14.99, this plate of tacos is on the pricey side of reasonable.
The grilled salmon ($18.99) was pleasant enough to look at with the sweet mango glaze and the deft plating of spinach salad and black beans, but the portion was small, the flavor more tame than vivid. The highlight was the mango salsa. The spinach salad, though dressed, was otherwise tasteless.
Then there was the burrito. At Zocalo, it’s positioned on the menu as a main entree, meaning they can charge $14.99 for it. It’s a pretty good burrito – if they were charging $7.99 at a taqueria. But there is little on the plate that elevates it in appearance or flavor. We got ours with carnitas. If you want the steak, it’s up to $15.99.
In this new and enlightened era of dining, with Sacramento growing into its new claim as the “farm-to-fork capital,” we don’t hear much from Zocalo in this regard. That’s because the restaurant is neither seasonal nor farm-to-fork. The ingredients sometimes seem a long way from the farm, meaning they are not exactly brimming with freshness or showcasing top-shelf quality. Even the coffee we ordered after lunch was subpar – dark and cloyingly bitter. How could that be? Old Soul is just around the corner and down the alley. But Zocalo isn’t serving Old Soul product and it isn’t providing even decent java.
The desserts, too, are a mixed bag, heavy on tradition, if not cliché, but AWOL when it comes to creativity. The tres leches cake is big and, of course, exceptionally moist, if not syrupy sweet. The chocolate cake ( pastel de chocolate) is a dense, dark offering that’s a tad dry and perhaps not worth the bother.
The best way to enjoy Zocalo is to dabble in the bar drinks. Even better if you know how to read lips. We complained in 2003 that the restaurant was too noisy and we’re still at it. It’s not just too noisy. It’s an echo-chamber of music and laughter and the din of everyone everywhere either screaming to be heard or straining to hear. If you came here to converse, be prepared to repeat every other sentence. We did.
Many of the best mixed drinks at Zocalo feature tequila, including an above-average mango-and-cucumber concoction ($11.50). But offerings can be hit or miss. The sweet blackberry margarita ($9.75) arrived watered-down and thin on body. The “hand-crafted” sangria was one-dimensional in flavor. And Zocalo’s take on the classic Old-fashioned was a newfangled disaster. We tried it twice and concluded tequila has no business replacing bourbon. Was it simply the tequila reacting to the bitters? We’re not brave enough to examine the issue further.
The service at Zocalo was also an issue. During one visit, our charming server started off with a flourish, soon ran out of energy, then proceeded to neglect us altogether. Was this a meal? Or a rocky relationship? On another occasion, all went smoothly, though our server was always rushed and made no effort to connect with us or say anything other than, “Another drink?”
To that we say sure, as long as it’s not an Old-fashioned with tequila.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob