Bland decor, not-so-bland food
Reviewed by Claudia Alarcón, Fri., May 9, 2008
Zocalo Cafe1110 West Lynn, 472-8226.
I first encountered Zocalo Cafe's fare at one of the Texas Wine & Food Foundation events. They served crispy fried empanadas filled with a delicious beef picadillo and a warm salsa that tasted homemade. I was immediately curious to visit and try the rest of their offerings. A sibling of Galaxy Cafe – the local chain of casual dining establishments that brought "upscale fast food" to Austin – Zocalo Cafe sits near the corner of 12th and West Lynn, a location formerly occupied by West Lynn Cafe. The simple menu consists of basic Mexican favorites prepared with fresh ingredients, a healthy slant, and a "modern" twist. But while overall we are pleased with the outcome, there are a few issues that keep me from loving this place.
The stark and sterile decor makes a strong first impression. Sure, this is a casual, modern cafe, but that's no excuse for a bland color scheme of white and DayGlo Seventies avocado that permeates the interior. There is not one picture on the wall, not one speck of warmth or color. As my mother-in-law cleverly observed, it was like eating in a hospital cafeteria. I understand that quick/casual cafes may not necessarily want diners to linger, but the modern sterility here strikes me as extreme. I'm not suggesting serapes and piñatas, mind you, but I was honestly longing for the boisterous atmosphere of a Taco Cabana.
If you're planning to dine with a group and actually want to hang out at Zocalo, I suggest that food be ordered in courses. If you order everything at once, it will all arrive at the table within minutes. The Botanas section of the menu offers a few enticing options to share before the main meal. The campechana ($6.95) features shrimp and bay scallops in a tangy ketchup-based cocktail sauce, served the proper Mexican way, with saltine crackers. All the botanas come with a side of two salsas accompanied by fresh tortilla chips made from the tasty homemade corn tortillas (with no animal fat). Both the roasted-tomatillo green salsa and the smooth and savory tomato salsa are served warm and are absolutely wonderful, some of the best salsas I have had in Austin. These folks could definitely be a contender in the Hot Sauce Festival!
We chose items from each menu section as our main courses. The tostada salad ($5.95) is a satisfying portion of fresh greens, avocado, cilantro, roasted jalapeños, tomatoes, and queso fresco served atop a crisp tostada smeared with house-made black beans, with a side of creamy chile-lime dressing. For a couple more bucks, add fajita meat, chicken, grilled shrimp, or mahi mahi to make the salad a full meal. The jicama salad ($1.95) was sadly disappointing. Shredded jicama and carrots with fresh cucumber slices and a honey-jalapeño vinaigrette sounded refreshing and right up my alley, but the salad was watery, and the dressing flavorless. The pulled-pork posole soup ($4.95) was quite the opposite, with tender pork, hominy, and roasted poblano chunks swimming in a tasty and slightly piquant broth.
The Especiales de la Casa section was unfortunately not very special. The Zocalo Plate, described on the menu as the house specialty, offers chilaquiles (the same item appears as the Zocalo Breakfast on the weekend brunch). Better versions of this dish are available all over town for much less than $7.95. The real house specialty should be the snapper with chipotle slaw ($9.95), spiced and seared to perfection, served on a crisp tostada with grilled tomatoes, cabbage-and-carrot slaw, and creamy chipotle sauce. Fresh and filling, this was the big hit at the table. The taco plates offer something for everyone, from crispy tacos to fajita, grilled mahi mahi or shrimp, mixed grilled veggies, and carnitas. The carnitas are made from the same tender pulled pork used in the soup. They were perfect with a dash of the wonderful salsa verde. The green chile chicken (oddly listed under carnitas) was flavorful but overcooked and a bit on the dry side. Nothing a good dose of the warm red salsa couldn't fix.
For dessert, Zocalo features churros (fried pastries sprinkled with cinnamon sugar), the ubiquitous tres leches cake, and a chocolate cheesecake spiked with chile. Although this last offering sounded enticing, we had had enough of sitting around white metal tables in a painfully white room. Perhaps next time I'll sit outside and give it a try.