Carla Meyer

Dining review: Tucos in Davis is bold, tasty, but not for everyone

The Tucos dining room is relatively tiny, but it doesn’t feel cramped. There are also a few seats at a small counter looking into the kitchen.
The Tucos dining room is relatively tiny, but it doesn’t feel cramped. There are also a few seats at a small counter looking into the kitchen. Bee staff

Tucos has been thriving in its own quirky way since 2004. This cozy and often-captivating dining room offers a menu of delicious international fare and excellent wine. Yes, there is a touch of magic and plenty of eccentricity that will either be a revelation for you or possibly a turnoff.

For dinner, the tiny restaurant is usually filled with people, and the energy is like nothing else – cool and vibrant and sophisticated, a little slice of Paris or Prague or Greenwich Village tucked into a corner of downtown Davis.

Five years ago when I reviewed it, I sized up Tucos as an appealing restaurant on the verge of greatness, if only it could shore up some minor issues with the food and some glaring ones with the service.

These days, Tucos is still wonderful, but the entire equation has shifted. The charismatic owner, chef, visionary, dreamer and artist, who built this place and made it one of the most compelling eateries in the region, has gone through a dramatic personal journey and reawakening.

Pru Mendez is so different now than when I spoke with him five years back – so much more animated, engaging, introspective and unusual – that it has made me rethink everything.

“I want this place to be like I’m having you over to my house,” he told me when I called earlier in the week. “If I crisped up the service, it wouldn’t feel right to me. I want my staff to have fun and I want my customers to have fun, and I want grumpy people to move on and go somewhere else.”

Despite what Mendez says, the service has improved, though it’s nowhere close to the polished-but-casual service you’d find at, say, Waterboy or Formoli’s in Sacramento.

At a place like this, getting the balance right with service is an ongoing challenge. You can’t be stuffy and formal, as that will sap the energy. But neither can you be so informal that you don’t pay attention to all of the simple wants and needs that make dining out something of a fantasy.

You can be as laid-back as you want, but you still have to understand the menu and the cooking techniques, and you have to be able to discuss the wine in great detail. Tucos is still wanting in this regard.

But the food? It can be absolutely stellar. Just one dish – the near-perfect wild boar tamales with mole – was enough for us to sense that the cooking had reached a new level.

This is one of the greatest revelations we’ve had in recent memory. The masa was beautifully composed, the wild boar tender and seasoned just right, all of it covered in a red-brown mole sauce that was, all at once, sweet and savory and earthy and spicy.

The flavors of the mole had such an inviting seasonal feel to them – with notes of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, possibly a touch of star anise, the natural sweetness of the squash, all working in unison. The accompanying rice was also spot-on, with earthy notes of shaved black truffle and caramelized onions balanced with grilled squash.

The duck tacos were also very good, showing a good bit of finesse and, once again, an embrace of seasonality, though the duck itself may have been slightly under-salted and was one component shy of perfect.

The Caesar salad also showed finesse and restraint. Here’s a salad that is so often clumsy and overdone with all types of extras like tomatoes and chicken and avocado. Sometimes classic and simple are best, letting the flavors and textures be the star. The fresh romaine lettuce was perfectly dressed, allowing the flavor of anchovies to emerge on the palate with each and every bite. It’s one of the simpler and better Caesar salads we’ve had in recent years.

The menu is much different from what you’ll find at a typical bistro. It is lively and creative and international, but like Pru Mendez, it is also all over the map. The carpaccio is on the menu not only because it’s delicious but because Mendez believes it’s good for the immune system and good for what he refers to as the “Tucos community.”

The paella we ordered for dinner one night was very good, if not exceptional. The classic Spanish rice and seafood dish is seasoned with saffron and pimentón, or smoky paprika, giving the rice a pleasing note that melds nicely with the sweetness of the grilled squash and the overall seafood flavor of the dish. The rice was tender with occasional bites of crispness where it had touched the hottest parts of the pan.

There are plenty of tapas on the menu, ranging from $10 to $15, which is on the pricey side. Indeed, Tucos is not inexpensive, but the quality of the ingredients and cooking make it a reasonable value. Our favorite tapas include the albondigas (lamb meatballs), empanadas, and bacon-wrapped dates.

If you want to stick strictly with tapas, you can select four or five and share them, while enjoying a couple of glasses of wine, a bottle or, if you’re looking to try several styles in one sitting, by enjoying one of six wine flights. The wine program here is especially thoughtful and accessible, with a range of flights, including a $10 “adventurous” red flight of wines from Italy, Portugal, Spain and South Africa.

It would have been nice to have someone on hand to discuss the wines in greater detail and offer observations and possibly some background on less-familiar labels. For many wine enthusiasts, asking questions and engaging a sommelier in some banter about the wines is part of an elevated experience. It only goes so far at Tucos, and for some, that will be disappointing. If Tucos falls short in this regard, it is because of the super-casual nature of the service, which Mendez insists is not going to change.

When I later raised this issue with Mendez, he was willing to listen, but he was not so eager to change. He doesn’t want Tucos to be a wine bar. It used to be Tucos Wine Bar. Now it’s just Tucos. There is also a small but quality selection of beer, including a consistent supply of the coveted and elusive Pliny the Elder in the bottle.

Because it is so quirky – and Mendez so charmingly eccentric – Tucos is not for everyone. Mendez doesn’t disagree. When I pointed out how much I enjoyed the little oddities that some might find jarring, or even off-putting, Mendez said he now feels emboldened enough to send disgruntled customers on their way if they seem unwilling to grasp what he’s all about.

“I haven’t yet,” he said when I asked him if he had thrown anyone out. “But I am prepared to ask them to respectfully find another place to eat if they wish.”

These days, there is a sense of personality and style here that is even more vivid than it was. This is due to what Mendez calls his renaissance. A year ago, he disconnected his cable TV service and thought of ways to reinvent himself and his restaurant. He started painting, started thinking about who he was and what he wants to become.

He wants Tucos to be about art – the art of living well and boldly. He wants it to be about food and farms and freshness, and Mendez treks across the region several days a week picking up ingredients from a variety of small farms and specialty markets.

“My car gets a lot of miles,” he said. “I don’t want a truck pulling up here.”

He doesn’t want to be like every other restaurant. It’s simply not in his nature, and not part of the plan. He’s too different, and too driven to be his own man.

“Van Gogh is my soulmate, and every day I honor him,” he said. “He was not understood. He was cast aside. I relate to him profoundly. This is who I am, and it has always been me. But I think I was suppressed. Now I really just don’t give a damn.

“There are so many people who are afraid to be themselves because they’re afraid to be judged.”

We are not afraid to say that Mendez is one of a kind. His spirit and passion resonate through the kitchen and into the dining room and wine cellar. This new brand of boldness is odd and electric and inspiring.

His once-wonderful restaurant has a new edge. It’s sharper and more compelling than it was five years ago.

Mendez has been reborn, and Tucos has evolved. Those of you who want to embrace something charming and smart and a tad eccentric would do well to make yourself at home here.

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. On Twitter, @Blarob.

Tucos

130 G St., Davis

(530) 757-6600

www.tucos.org

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Beverage options: Large international wine selection at a variety of price points, by the bottle or glass, with six different wine flights. Small craft beer selection.

Vegetarian friendly: Marginally

Gluten-free options: By request

Noise level: Moderate to loud

Ambiance: Small, cozy, lively, sophisticated.

Overall:

A smart, charming and singular restaurant that emphasizes an international menu and wine list, Tucos has continued to evolve, and it has never been better.

Food: 1/2

The quality of the cooking is consistently good, the array of international dishes is impressive, and the flavors are often very impressive, if not profound. Recommended dishes include the wild boar tamales with mole, the paella, beef stroganoff and the Cubano sandwich.

Service:

It is more polished and attentive than it was five years ago, but its embrace of a casual “make yourself at home” approach could seem off-putting to those who expect more from servers.

Value:

There are multiple ways to dine here, from tapas that cost $10-$15, smaller dishes such as the Cubano sandwich or spaghetti that are $15 and full entrees like the wild boar tamales that cost $25. Wines tend to be on the pricey side. The restaurant is expensive, but there is no denying the quality.

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