In Mexico, the zocalo is the plaza in the center of town, surrounded by cafes and a church, there’s usually a fountain in the middle and plenty of benches. It’s the place to see and be seen: children play soccer, vendors hawk balloons and shaved ice, old men nap, couples neck. In Boston, Zocalo restaurant is a bit different, but no less vibrant.
One of four outlets owned by the Ole Restaurant group, Zocalo offers contemporary Mexican cuisine based on traditional recipes made with the freshest ingredients. This summer, Ole is hosting a Chefs of Mexico series, which invites out-of-town chefs to the Boston area to cuisines from various parts of the country. The series kicked off last week, and I was lucky enough to snag an invite from my friend Sarah, aka Loose Gringa.
Chef Fany Gerson kicked off the series. I didn’t know much about her before I went, which surprised me a bit because we are both in love with Mexican sweets. I would broaden that to say that I’m in love with Latin American sweets generally (see here), but Gerson specializes in Mexican ones. In addition to writing two books all about Mexican desserts (including the aptly named My Sweet Mexico), Gerson runs La Newyorkina, which makes and sells paletas (Mexican-style popsicles) through out New York.
Upon arriving, Sarah and I beelined it for the bar. It was a gorgeous weekend in Boston, the perfect afternoon for something cold and fruity with a kick. After hemming and hawing over Zocalo’s ample drink menu, Sarah and I decided to get the watermelon jalapeno margarita. Made with jalapeno-infused tequila, I worried that the drink would be too spicy, but it was perfect, offering a bit of spice that countered the watermelon and salted rim.
Later, we had a hibiscus margarita, which was a wonderful blend of citrus and floral flavors. We also drank a chia seed limeaide, which I adored. I got hooked on chia seed drinks when I lived in Costa Rica, but I hardly ever see them around here.
Dinner was almost everything I hoped it would be. We started with an amuse bouche of teeny corn tortillas topped with cactus leaves and salsa and then quickly moved on to an appetizer: tuna tostadas with fried leeks, avocado, and guajillo aioli. The tostadas were basically house made corn chips, and their salty crunch went perfectly with the rare tuna.
The second course was a crema panna cotta and roasted beet salad with tangerines, spiced candied pepitas, and honey vinaigrette. Lots going on here: creamy and slightly sour panna cotta, sweet beets, crunchy pepitas, and micro greens. I’d never had a savory panna cotta before, and while it was interesting, I’m not sure I’d order it again. The panna cotta was mushier than others I’ve had, and there was just a lot going on on my plate.
For an entrée we were given a few options. I went with achiote-marinated shrimp with plantains, black bean sauce and pickled red onions. While the plantains and the shrimp were a wonderful combination, the achiote marinade didn’t add much. Sarah did much better with pork belly in a smokey tomatillo sauce.
Dessert was sort of a let-down for me. While My Sweet Mexico offers a host of unusual sweets, the final course was a chile-spiked boca negra (chocolate cake). I don’t really enjoy chile and chocolate, and think the combination has been overdone in Mexican restaurants to the point it’s cliche, so I was a bit disappointed. Fortunately, Gerson sent out a bowl of her famous paletas afterwards. They were amazing- coconut, hibiscus, and (I think?) tamarind. I was so glad that the meal ended on that high note.
Ole is hosting two more Mexican dinners this summer- you can learn more about them here.