New outpost of Zocalo doesn’t disappoint
By Greg Sabin
The UV shopping center at Howe Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard has had its share of good dining over the decades. When I was growing up, Chinois, the first restaurant in the area to use the word “fusion” on its menu, called it home.
Later, the incomparable Bandera moved in, and it still thrives, serving slabs of rotisserie meats and the best French dip on the planet. For thirsty diners, Capitol Beer and Tap Room, one of the best beer rooms in the city, moved in a few years ago.
Recently, after an extensive, years-long renovation, the dining scene moved up yet another notch. Along with a few fast-casual spots, The UV now sports a Zocalo to anchor its west side.
This is the third location for the local Mexican eatery. Opened more than a dozen years ago in Midtown, the original Zocalo offers a sophisticated take on Mexican dining along with a dramatic design and impressive interiors. In 2012, the second Zocalo opened in Roseville in the Fountains shopping center.
This new location is deceptively large. From the outside, you’d be forgiven for thinking the space might be a little cozy. But open the front door and you’re met with an enormous dining room and huge patio. There’s a four-sided bar with room for 40, and a kitchen big enough to handle all the traffic easily.
The space is impressive, and not just because of its size. Stamped ceilings, wall sculpture, room-high columns and other epically sized design elements make you feel like you’re somewhere. The four-sided bar with its oversized four-sided television offers a happening place to watch a game with some friends.
The menu is roughly the same at each of the three Zocalos. It features a substantial selection of Mexican favorites with a smattering of specialty dishes and upmarket offerings.
On the more pedestrian side, you’ll find things like a taco salad—better than most, but not a showstopper—as well as quesadillas with cheese and chicken. My fairly picky friend, Mel, opted for the taco salad and loved it. The rest of the table went a little off the beaten path.
The fish tacos are some of the best in town. Fried Baja style, they’re fresh, hearty and bright, with just a touch of acid and a touch of heat. They come pretty close to matching my favorite fish taco in town, at Midtown’s Cantina Alley.
A significant amount of care goes into the enchiladas. Topped with house-made mole (a savory Mexican sauce made with chilies, chocolate, dried fruits and nuts) or a surprisingly complex red chili sauce, the dish is simple but well prepared.
Sometimes, you find an item at a restaurant that’s too good. “Too good” means you order that one thing each time you eat at that restaurant and never try anything else. For me, at Zocalo, that’s the cochinita pibil. It’s a stunning piece of pork, smoked and lacquered in a sauce made of achiote, citrus and herbs. The gorgeous chunk of meat is topped with fresh arugula and pickled red onions. The whole thing is a masterpiece: tender, spicy, sweet, citrusy and indulgent. I most likely will never order anything at Zocalo again now that I have tasted its glory.
The bar menu is what you would expect from a Mexican restaurant: heavy on the margaritas. But a selection of tequila- and mezcal-based drinks, including a cheeky tequila-based Old-Fashioned, rounds out the cocktail menu nicely. You’ll also find a surprisingly robust wine list and a few obscure Mexican craft brews that are both difficult to find and top-notch.
For a restaurant open only a few months, the service is on point and the kitchen well organized. It’s what you would expect from a restaurant group with more than 20 years on the local restaurant scene and a reputation for quality.
Greg Sabin can be reached at email@example.com.