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click to enlarge bartlettimage-coco_cocina-5584.jpg

photo by Rob Bartlett

Coco Cocina celebrates regional Mexican fare in upscale fashion 

When you watch the buck of bad luck get passed this many times at Suite 104 of 100 S. Eola Drive, you can't help but think that only a Starbucks or a clothing-optional kombucha bar could put the space out of its misery. It's a cursed location, we all know it – just ask the luckless proprietors of the since-shuttered Fifi's Patisserie, Sanctuary Diner, Nick's Italian Kitchen and Gaviota Seafood & Fine Peruvian Cuisine. But try telling that to Oudom Ketsatha. The man took over Suite 105 – the equally jinxed space next door – for his eponymous Thai restaurant, and it's still kicking around after almost four years. In Coco Cocina – a Mexican concept that, much like Oudom's Thai & Sushi, banks on popular and populist cuisine – he lets luck ride. Possibly pressing it. Maybe pushing it. If Ketsatha's a hostage to fortune, he's got a Mexican chef, German Garcia, in the kitchen to hedge his bet and, perhaps, skirt any potential questions of "authenticity," because questions there are.

"So you make your tortillas in house?" I asked, expecting a paraphrase of the heartening story on the menu about how their masa "starts its journey in Mexico" and is made from "heirloom corn" grown on "family farms" which Coco then "cook and grinds" in-house to give us "a taste of this treasured tradition."

"Oh no, we go through way too many tacos to make them in house," was the unexpectedly candid response.

Well, Team Coco, which is it? I mean either way, they're decent – enjoyable even, when they're folded around guacamole and grasshoppers sautéed with shallots and tequila ($11). What's that? Yeah, the chapulines lend an inimitable arthropodic crunch to the pair of otherwise creamy tacos which, much like the ones with tequila-marinated cactus worms ($11), aren't much touted by Coco's servers. Go figure.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • photo by Rob Bartlett

The suadero ($9), as chilango a taco as it gets, most definitely does get the push, possibly at the behest of Garcia, who undoubtedly grew up eating them in his native Mexico City. But this unusual beef cut – braised, roasted and grilled – arrives in a more, umm, Sonoran state. As dry as the suadero is, the esquites ($8) is unduly drippy and the flavors watered down, literally. The corn should've been sweeter – 'tis the season, after all – and any discernible notes of spice, smoke and tang aren't nearly inciting enough. Clearly someone neglected to make an offering to Cinteotl.

At least the space itself stirs the senses. It's fetching, and always has been, Pixar-ish Day of the Dead mural and all. Only after forking into a tamal de mole poblano ($11), immaculately folded in a banana leaf exposing a nabla of sesame-seeded sauce and plantains, did I make the connection to Disney's Coco. Duh. I'd had a few too many $4 margaritas, perhaps. Their quality and price had me wondering why the place wasn't packed like the Stubborn Mule next door.

Maybe the Mule has better hangover options, I thought, after sampling the chilaquiles verde ($10) for brunch. Theirs is a high-street Mexico City version made from chips instead of thicker-cut tortillas, an assemblage resembling nachos more than the peasant dish it usually is – a saucy mess of alcohol-soaking comfort. No, fulfillment came in the bracing aguachile negro ($14), a ceviche of red snapper, avocado, sweet mandarins and charred onions, all detonated by slivers of habanero. Take your chances with this one; I certainly would, again and again. And do so while you can – at 100 S. Eola Drive, Suite 104, the specter of that curse looms large.

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