Over the past 20 years, restaurants have come and gone in the small, nondescript building at the corner of Seventh and Navasota, but few made much of an impression or lasted very long. Taqueria owner Jose de Loera began leasing the property in 2000, living in the rent house attached to the rear of the small restaurant space and watching eateries come and go. The savvy businessman realized early on that the corner location could have long-term potential. He observed the bar-and-restaurant boom along nearby blocks of East Sixth over the past three years, and when the narrow residential lot just west of the restaurant became available, he finally made his move. With the two properties consolidated and with access to a parking lot directly across the alley, de Loera enlisted Laurie Smith Design Associates to help him create a bar and restaurant concept that is now Takoba.
The new business makes use of the entire property, with a comfortable covered patio in front, a dining room and bar in the original restaurant space, and a lounge/party room behind the kitchen in the former rent house. The lounge opens onto a fenced, tree-shaded sandbox area complete with picnic tables, umbrellas, and a play space for kids, which in turn connects to the front patio. The stylish transformation is really remarkable, completely erasing any trace of the original building. The sleek interiors, color and lighting accents, and attractive landscaping combine to immediately establish a sense of place and personality for Takoba. The restaurant opened just in time for the World Cup soccer tournament this past summer, playing host to 300-600 soccer fanatics on game days, depending on which teams were playing. The new business got off to a good start despite months of continued street construction on East Seventh.
As impressed as I am with Takoba's style and personality, the food service still needs some fine-tuning. A friend joined me for brunch on a summer Sunday, and our meal got off to a good start with an excellent lime-tinged guacamole ($6.50) with homemade tostada chips and a delicious bowl of molten queso fundido ($8), chock-full of pico de gallo, roasted poblano rajas, and chorizo and served with homemade flour tortillas. Unfortunately, the drinks and entrées that followed were a complete letdown. The bland aguas frescas ($2 each) showed barely any evidence of pineapple or watermelon juice or any sweetener. The underseasoned huevos Motuleños ($7.50) featured overcooked eggs and greasy, undercooked potatoes. The house specialty, birria de borrego estilo Aguascalientes ($9.50), was a pile of dry, flavorless shredded lamb with tortillas – surely not the best representation of what we were told is a de Loera family recipe.
More recently, a group of friends joined me for dinner and drinks on Takoba's delightful patio, and we fared better, though there were still missteps with consistency and timing. The designated drinkers in our party raved about the Salty Perrito ($7), the house margarita ($5.50), and the Mexican martini ($9.50 for a full shaker), but the appetizers were somewhat uneven. While the distinctive guacamole was still wonderful, this time the queso fundido was almost all cheese with very little in the way of chiles, tomatoes, or chorizo, and the bolillo base of the molletes ($6) came with the thinnest possible layer of beans and cheese. Our entrées were better – especially the traditional chile relleno en nogada ($11.50), a perfect poblano pepper stuffed with toothsome picadillo spiked with dried fruits, napped with a luxuriously creamy walnut sauce. The vegetarian version, chile capeado ($9.50), was equally satisfying. The third standout was pescado al mojo de ajo ($11.50), a fillet of tilapia pan-sautéed with whisper-thin slivers of garlic. Unfortunately, the fish arrived at the table a good 15 minutes after our other entrées, throwing off the rhythm of our party. (Our gracious server deleted this dish from the bill without having to be asked – a definite point in her favor.)
Good desserts can provide the elegant grace note to the end of a meal, but a poor dessert selection just sends guests home with a bad taste in their mouths. Takoba's dessert menu needs work. The flan ($5) was grainy and bland, and the pastel de chocolate ($6) was overwhelmed by too much cinnamon. The strangest offering was the nube de coco ($6), which translates to "coconut cloud" but was really a frozen blob with all the unpleasant texture of too much dried coconut and none of the flavor. We would have been better off with a scoop of Amy's Ice Creams' Mexican vanilla with caramel sauce ($4).
Takoba owner Jose de Loera has demonstrated that he's an astute businessman with a sharp sense of style. In order for his newest venture to be really successful, however, all aspects of Takoba's kitchen operation need to show the same attention to detail as the ambience, the decor, and the bar. We're betting he can do it.
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