Bathroom talk is usually off-limits during meals, but at Loba, a 3-month-old restaurant in MiMo, the lavatory is a conversation piece. That's because apart from the complimentary dental floss (greatly appreciated), the wallpaper is composed of pages torn from the classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are. It's no coincidence that the protagonist, Max, dresses up in a wolf costume and that Loba translates to "she-wolf."
Literary accents can be seen (and read) all over the place at Loba because of owner Jessica Sanchez's love of reading and her limited decorating budget. The 28-year-old former financial analyst also wanted to liven up the mood and create a playful atmosphere at this small place across the street from the newly remodeled Vagabond Hotel. For instance, a vegetarian entrée featuring farro piccolo, succotash, radishes, squash blossoms, eggs, and zucchini is cleverly called "Orwell's Dystopia." And checks are delivered inside novels. (On several occasions customers have coincidentally received their bills in their favorite books, says Sanchez, adding a Loba library is in the pipeline.)
See also: Photos from Loba in MiMo
Such quirky touches give the 50-seat eatery a distinct vibe, and the Latin- and Southern-influenced cuisine has a voice of its own too. Case in point: the whole-fish dish listed on the menu. It was red snapper during my visit, but regardless of the day's catch, the fish is marinated in lemon, lime, salt, and pepper and boiled or fried depending upon preference. Then it's spiked with sorrel, arugula, lemon, orange, and -- the best part -- pink guava.
The slightly sour fruits helped round out the sharp taste of the snapper's bronzed exterior and flavorful meat. Pink guava is rarely seen on menus, much less on fish, and at Loba it raises the dish to the next level.
Compliments go to the two women helming the kitchen -- Sanchez and her mother, Libia E. Sanchez. The younger Sanchez and her brother Jon, Loba's general manager, were schooled in the business by their parents, who owned Patacón, a small chain of Colombian restaurants. In fact, it was her mother's zeal for cooking that motivated the MBA graduate to choose food over her stable finance job.
Opening her first venture in an up-and-coming area might seem a dicey move. However, Sanchez says her neighbors have been incredibly supportive. Indeed, Avra Jain, the developer responsible for transforming the Vagabond Hotel, dined at Loba opening night.
So far the major complaint from diners has been lack of parking. Apart from the six spots available to customers at the Royal Inn Motel next door, there's only street parking -- none of it on Biscayne Boulevard out front. Sanchez says she's working with her landlord and the city to fix the problem.
The Loba team. Jessica Sanchez is center, to the left is her mother and head chef Libia E. Sanchez
Once inside, you'll be pleased to find a cozy, wood-washed space complete with a high-top communal table, a vertical garden, and walls covered in book pages. As my guest and I dipped complimentary warm bread from Zak the Baker into a homemade honey, garlic, and paprika butter, the waiter mentioned the "Vincent Van Goat" on the menu is a popular appetizer.
The dish consisted of fried goat cheese balls misted with crumbled pistachios and local honey. Loba employs foragers from Farm to Kitchen to keep the menu local whenever possible. In this dessert-like starter, there was harmony between the pungent goat cheese and its crisp, sweet shell.
An octopus dish, dubbed the "Slim Ursula" for the character in Disney's The Little Mermaid, arrived next. The charred sea creature lay beneath celery, radishes, and toasted hazelnuts. Though well seasoned, the octopus was too rubbery, and the hazelnuts didn't jibe with the other ingredients.
Loba's burger is a hefty main for one person. Nestled into a sliced house bun is a patty made with premium beef and brisket from Larry Kline Wholesale Meats in Deerfield Beach, along with bacon, a fried egg, Havarti cheese, and onion marmalade. Though messy, the beef is incredibly juicy, and the gooey egg is a welcome addition. It's too bad the accompanying fries were limp and lifeless.
Desserts are concocted by Jessica Hernandez, who is also the pastry chef at Michelle Bernstein's Crumb on Parchment. Sanchez saw her work on Instagram and tracked Hernandez down.
Too full to try "Frida's Secret" -- a Mexican-chocolate brownie with sweet corn ice cream from Azucar and chocolate cornflakes -- we opted for the decidedly lighter key lime crema. There's no crust, simply an orb of velvety custard flanked by a berry compote. Its decadent and refreshing all at once.
For java drinkers, beans come courtesy of Panther Coffee. And beginning November 2, you'll be able to sip the popular brew during Loba's Sunday brunch.
As the meal wound down, we spotted Blue Collar and Mignonette owner/chef Danny Serfer eating by the bar with Mignonette co-owner Ryan Roman. A cheery Sanchez popped out of the kitchen to greet them. She didn't stop by the other tables, but service was friendly and on point throughout the evening. Sanchez wants customers to feel at home when dining here, and she succeeds via her staff, the ambiance, and the restaurant's unpretentious cookery.
Home to eateries such as Blue Collar, Via Verdi, Ni.Do. Caffe, and the soon-to-open Vagabond Hotel's restaurant and Ms. Cheezious, MiMo is on its way to becoming a serious food destination. And after a few minor tweaks, including better parking, it's almost certain Loba will help lead the pack in the right direction.
7420 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 786-536-6692; lobarestaurant.com. Dinner Tuesday through Sunday 6 to 11 p.m.; brunch Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Vincent Van Goat $11
Slim Ursula $14
Market whole fish $25
Loba burger $15
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Key lime crema $8