Lolita desires to be the hot place
Being with the in-crowd ends up feeling just overcrowded
I hope you like to do it standing up. Eat, that is. A place like Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar — dark as a movie theater, with red velvet wallpaper, flickering candles, and the musky scent of incense low in the background — does seem calculated to awaken more libidinous appetites. On a Saturday night, it’s cheek by jowl at the Back Bay spot, sister restaurant to another Lolita located in Greenwich, Conn. You want a table? That will be a two-hour wait, the hostess informs you, logging your cell number in her iPad. She’ll call you. It’s not a brush-off or a scare tactic. It really is going to be two hours. Minimum.
So you and a few friends wedge yourselves into the humanity and juggle margaritas, nachos, ceviche, and pulled pork tacos. Thank goodness for finger food. There’s nowhere to set down a fork. At the bar, guys wearing baseball hats, speaking Spanish, and drinking Dos Equis pretend not to notice nymphets with kohl-lined eyes, updos, and shirts made of velvet and lace. A lounge in the back showcases black wrought-iron trellises, crystal chandeliers with black shades, and plush couches where packs of friends perch, snarling if a potential seat poacher gets too close. The turnout is impressive. Who wants to hang out somewhere this crowded? A lot of people, it seems. And, on a night when the kitchen must be running for its life, the food is quite tasty.
The nachos are “vertical,’’ according to the menu. Inverted is more like it, beans, cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo, and pieces of sweetly spiced short rib on the bottom, with chips sticking out of them. It solves the most annoying part of eating nachos — getting stuck with a pile of untopped chips halfway down. Lolita’s chips are addictive, thick, crisp, and intensely salty. The ceviche is refreshing. It’s served as a trio, with a traditional lime-and-onion mahi mahi version, tuna in coconut milk, and lobster and scallops with tomato, orange, chili, and avocado. On the plate are kernels of spiced popcorn. The pulled pork tacos feature savory meat, salsa verde, and pickled onions; they’re delicious, though the lackluster tortillas disintegrate in your hand. Who needs a chair? By the time your phone rings, you’re full.
Come back on a Tuesday and it’s busy, but you can actually sit and order food that requires utensils. The meal starts with grapefruit granita topped with an optional shot of tequila. It’s served on smoking dry ice, an amuse-bouche fit for a metal band. Servers are ready with advice: yes on the sticky spare ribs, and get two orders; no on the tortilla soup. Listen to them. The ribs are so good one plate’s not enough, the tender meat suffused with the flavors of coffee and chocolate. The tortilla soup is terrible, bland broth poured tableside over insipid bits of chicken and not enough tortillas, avocado, or spice.
Duck tacos are both dry and too sweet, while a lobster enchilada is drowning in its creamy sauce. And who would have thought it was possible to make a bad version of grilled corn with crema and cotija cheese? Lolita’s is tough and tasteless. But much of the food here, prepared under the watch of former La Verdad chef Brian Roche and sous chef Eric Hammer, is easy and enjoyable. You don’t need to think too hard about guacamole, which comes in four versions, including one smoky with bacon and another studded with crab and lobster and drizzled with garlic butter. Or fried oysters topped with a bit of fresh salsa and chipotle crema. Or tacos filled with tender shrimp in a warmly spicy tomato reduction; perfectly seared tuna with orange-chili sauce; or carne asada, juicy skirt steak with guacamole and salsa. You just need to enjoy them while drinking cold cerveza, margaritas, or one of the 200-plus tequilas on hand.
This is where Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar falls down. The kitchen keeps pace with the crowd. The bar doesn’t. Which one’s more important here? At a place where people are clearly looking for a fiesta, I’d have to say the latter. A margarita ordered at the beginning of the meal arrives halfway through; a shot of tequila requested halfway through comes after the plates are cleared, just before dessert. Thirsty patrons are bad for the bottom line.
As for desserts, they are sweet and elaborate — fried ice cream, the next generation. A dessert called Bananarama should taste like bananas, but it doesn’t; it’s cheesecake wrapped in a fried tortilla with chocolate ice cream. This appeals to me about as much as a fried ice cream bar, wherein the supposedly coconut ice cream also fails to taste like coconut and the cornflake-graham cracker crust is tough. The perfect thing with which to end a meal here is straight-up sugar — a complimentary puff of green apple cotton candy sprinkled with pink Pop Rocks.
It’s dessert for kiddies, decidedly Lolita-esque. This place is a little bit naughty, a little bit classy, and just grown-up enough to drink tequila.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.