Restaurant Reviews

Modest Mex

I like Bocados very much, though it can sometimes be tough on the nerves. Because the door has a tendency to stick, it's a struggle just getting into the place. My guests, in fact, couldn't get in at all and were forced to wave their arms and make funny faces until a waiter came to their rescue, sparing them the indignity of spending the rest of their lives on Bocados's deck.

And then there are the plates. The crashing variety. One recent Tuesday, there were several crashes, the first occurring halfway through dinner when someone in the kitchen dropped a tray. This was followed ten minutes later by another crash, now considerably louder. It sounded as if every plate in the place had been reduced to tiny shards. Half an hour after that, crash three occurred -- minor this time, more in the nature of an aftershock. I wouldn't want to be one of the perpetrators. If their pay is docked to pay for this breakage, they will go to their graves 60 years from now still owing Bocados a ton of money.

In a lot of restaurants, a commotion like that would put the kibosh on an evening. Not at Bocados, though. The presiding spirit here is a gentle one, and such things as dropped trays -- paltry, when you think about it -- are regarded with indulgence. For that, credit Teresa Flores and Lily Hernandez, Bocados's owners. (Bocado is Spanish for "morsel.") Unassuming themselves, they have created a restaurant that is also unassuming. No huge sums have been spent on the place, but this lack of resources seems not to have hampered them. Bocados is both attractive and comfortable. There's a brick fireplace and a handsome black bar and two stunning pictures, the work of Meg Davis. These canvases are part Bonnard, part Chagal, part Gabriel Garcia Marquez: lots of floating guitars and tropical blooms and luscious fruit, and a star-filled sky glimpsed from a gaping window.

I do wonder, though, why the female wait staff would cavort in such startlingly short skirts. Do they wear these garments of their own volition or are they required to do so? Were a male employer to dress his staff this way, he would lay himself open -- and rightly, too -- to charges of sexism.

The restaurant's contemporary Mexican menu makes a point of being straightforward: familiar ingredients prepared in familiar ways. But the results are surprisingly satisfying. I enjoyed both my meals at Bocados. Nothing here is what would be called groundbreaking. But then, not everything one eats needs to be cutting edge. Bocados has not set elaborate goals for itself. Its aspirations, indeed, are modest. But for the most part, what it does do, it does extremely well.

Two of the appetizers we tried were outstanding. The first was the tortilla soup ($4). Bocados's version differs from the one you're probably familiar with, which is tomato-based. This kitchen dispenses with tomatoes altogether -- very brave indeed -- and serves the rice, cheese and tortillas in a clear chicken broth. Surprisingly delicious, it's delicate and bright and wonderfully clean. This is a tortilla soup that dances on the tongue.

Equally scrumptious are the crab cakes with tomatillo salsa ($8): lump crabmeat along with red and yellow peppers, lightly battered and pan sauteed. They come to the table the color of chestnuts and resembling macaroons. What I most admired about them was their economy. There's no fuss here, no redundant flourishes. Every element counts for something. Were everything Bocados cooks this successful, I'd eat there every night of the week.

Chili con queso ($4) -- serrano chiles and Velveeta cheese -- was nicely soupy; and the empanaditas de pollo -- empanadas filled with marinated chicken and low-fat mozzarella -- were serviceable. Both, though, could do with a little work. Though it may only have been a rare lapse on the kitchen's part, that first evening almost everything I ate was underseasoned. But maybe I'm being unfair. All those crashing plates would make even the most experienced kitchen skittish.

Among the main courses we sampled, the standout was carne guisada ($9) -- beef tips marinated in salsa, cumin, garlic and bay leaves, and braised in tomato puree and a little water. The actual braising takes no more than ten or 15 minutes, which is surprising because the dish has enormous character. It tastes like something that took days to make.

The beef fajitas ($11) are also first rate. Served with red peppers and caramelized onions, they sizzled so loudly when brought to the table, they sounded like people at a pantomime hissing a villain. Our main courses were rather less interesting. The chicken in the enchiladas de pollo ($9) seemed excessively dry; and the chile relleno ($11) -- the filling consisted of chicken and beans -- moved one of my guests to remark that it reminded her of something a starter wife might cook. This was a morose chile relleno and, eating it, I grew morose as well. Bocados is to be applauded for the respect it bears tradition. But there's such a thing as over-respect. This chile relleno hummed when it might have sung. A little tinkering would do it a world of good.

To finish, a minor complaint. Separating smokers and nonsmokers smacks a little of ethnic cleansing, and restaurants today do sometimes look like mini-Bosnias. But at Bocados, because the place is small, the line dividing the two factions is often amorphous. I'm not suggesting anything as elaborate as a firewall. But at the very least, there should be a corridor of some sort, a tiny no man's land.

Bocados, 1312 West Alabama, 523-5230.

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Eric Lawlor