Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar: South Beach cantina is all about fun, but food is more than an afterthought

In 1995, when Myles Chefetz partnered with an unknown local chef named Michael Schwartz to open Nemo, it was one of the first South Beach restaurants that catered to modern urban diners, both in ambiance and cuisine. Nemo signaled a shift in the trendy zip code that had previously boasted mostly fun and fluffy tourist-driven establishments. There is an irony, then, in Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar occupying the former Nemo space; at least for this address, it's a return, in Lolita's word's, to "burlesque-inspired" dining. That said, the food is better than you might expect.

The radically redecorated space, with its red-velvet embossed walls, gothic candelabras, and a hundred-plus bottles of tequila locked inside a cage, suggests a bordello — and that's before you even notice the studded black leather couches on the patio (there are about 250 seats in all). Rock music, which is played loudly, boosts the bacchanal factor, as does the complimentary bowl of grapefruit-mint granitas encircled by billowing smoke from dry ice and drenched with a shot of tequila poured on top (that last part is optional).

While diners peruse the one-page laminated menu, a waiter comes by with a basket of freshly fried corn chips and three dips: spicy roast tomato, creamy chipotle, and green tomatillo salsa. A bottle of fiery-sweet homemade mango habanero sauce is placed on the table too, and enhances just about anything you splash it on. After our group enthusiastically polished off all chips and dips, we were promptly brought another round. The Lolita staff works hard at being hospitable.


Lolita Cocina and Tequila Bar

Lolita Cocina

View a slide show of Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar.

On a different evening, we placed most of our chips into a bowl of ripe guacamole fresco. The bright-green mash was freshly made and garnished with tomatoes, serrano chilies, and lime wedges.

We enjoyed two out of three ceviches, which is roughly the same success ratio found with the rest of the fare. The more traditional maceration of Florida snapper in fresh lime juice with serrano chilies and red onion boasts pristine notes, as does an even tastier "sangrita" medley of shrimp and crab with orange and avocado in a hot-sauce-spiked tomato juice base. Ahi tuna in coconut milk, supposedly with "lime juice, cilantro, and jalapeño," tasted too much like a straight tuna-coconut combo — it was dull and mismatched.

There's no such problem with six thick, meaty pork spare ribs glazed with a sweet/savory mole-like sauce of Mexican coffee beans, chocolate, sesame oil, and orange. The ribs are listed among starters, and when the dish is shared, it fits this bill; the serving is large enough, however, that it could make a hearty meal with one of the eight à la carte sides. Among these "sancho" are clay pot black beans with garlic and epazote; slow-cooked greens with smoked chilies; zocalo corn with lime, chili peppers, and cojita cheese; chipotle white/sweet potato gratin; and crisply fried beer batter over brightly crisp green beans with jalapeño crema.

A few of these side dishes together could comprise a creative and rewarding vegetarian meal. A salad section likewise proffers nonmeat offerings such as jícama with watercress, oranges, avocado, and ancho chili vinaigrette; mixed greens with queso fresco, tortilla strips, and honey-lime vinaigrette; and caesar salad with corn masa croutons and shaved Manchego cheese.

Other menu categories are tacos, nachos, quesadillas, enchiladas, and main plates. The first are something of a house specialty at the Lolita locations in Boston and Greenwich, Connecticut (both owned by the same CB5 Restaurant Group that operates the SoBe branch). Individual, $3 tacos include fillings such as chorizo, chili shrimp, and barbecued chicken, each plunked within a choice of soft corn or flour tortillas with lettuce, pico de gallo, cilantro, jalapeños, and crema. Pricier trios of composed tacos ($11 to $15) encompass pulled pork with salsa verde; slow-cooked brisket with a shot of gravy; and rib eye with garlic crema, chopped salad, and "tobacco onions" (with no nicotine involved — the onion is sliced and fried into thin brown frizzles that look like tobacco).

The same onions garnish two enchiladas plumped with tender short ribs bursting with beefy flavor and bathed in a potent, somewhat strange-tasting Negro Modello-and-red chili sauce. Flautas come crunchily fried and tastily stuffed with chicken tinga, a preparation from Puebla where shreds of poultry are simmered in chipotle-smoked tomato sauce. A quesadilla of "garlic lime grilled skirt steak with BBQ'd onions" was so bereft of meat, though, that I thought the mushroom quesadilla might have been delivered by accident. Upon peering into one of the cheesy triangles, I ascertained it was indeed a shriveled strip of well-done meat that was inside — not very generous for $12.

Entrées are more straightforward than the rest of the menu. Snapper veracruzano — with heirloom tomatoes, green olives, capers, jalapeño relish, and a splash of Spanish olive oil — is the most inspired of the four seafood offerings. The poultry pick is a grilled half-chicken with habanero vinegar or a grilled breast with matchstick potatoes and salsa. Three hunks of slow-cooked pork carnitas tasted fine with salsa verde and pickled red onions, but the meat was dry and juiceless. Main courses are in the $21 to $27 range, except filet mignon and bone-in rib eye ($32 and $36). The rest of the menu items run $9 to $17 each. That's pricey for Mexican but modest in the context of South Beach.

Ten-dollar desserts are certainly no bargain. This is especially true when one of the plates is missing a main component. "Tres amigos" is described as a "triple layered deep chocolate brownie cake, dark, milk & white chocolate, raspberry purees, and Mexican chocolate sauce." Translation: a mousse-like wedge with a white-chocolate tip and a milk-chocolate base and a smudge of raspberry/chocolate sauce alongside. There was no brownie in sight.

Lolita is really more of a bar-to-table than farm-to-table kind of place, meaning the quality of tequilas, margaritas, and such is likely given as much attention as the sourcing of pork. A "Lolita" margarita ($12) is just right, made with Don Julio Blanco, Grand Marnier, fresh lime juice, cane syrup, and a squeeze of grapefruit. Shots of top-shelf tequilas are offered too — the extensive agave listing categorized into taste characteristics such as "gentle vanilla & cream," "chocolate and spice," and "hot-pepper and smoke."

View a slide show of Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar.

Service is surprisingly strong. Numerous managers actively oversee the room, and the staff works smoothly. Plus, as mentioned, patrons are made to feel good via free little snacks at the start — and then by way of a wad of cotton candy that comes with the check.

If you're the sort of person who doesn't fancy a puff of spun sugar, this restaurant might not be for you. Lolita, after all, is like the cotton candy of Mexican restaurants: frivolous, fluffy, and fun.

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