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SPANISH ACCENTS 

La Boca starts with Latin flavors but doesn't stop there

The La Boca barrio of Buenos Aires is a colorful arts district surrounded by a blue-collar neighborhood. How fitting, then, that the newest restaurant to join the burgeoning Gordon Square District, an artsy borough tucked into the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, is called La Boca.

Situated a stone's throw from Cleveland Public Theatre and the soon-to-open Capitol Theatre, La Boca aims to add a dash of Latin spice to the near-west dining scene. As a native of Buenos Aires, first-time restaurateur Rosita Kutkut knows a few things about the flavors and spices of Latin America. To execute her plan, Kutkut enlisted veteran chef Adam Schmith, most recently of Melange.

Before the grand opening, the chef described the food as "contemporary comfort cuisine with a Latin inspiration." I looked forward to sampling the "spices of Argentina, Venezuela and Chile" twisted into a variety of modern dishes, as he explained it. With a couple of visits under my belt, I've discovered numerous items that warrant return trips. What hasn't always been easy to find is the much-touted Spanish flair.

Folks who haven't visited the site since its Snickers days — or perhaps Lou & Eddy's or Four Seasons — will be pleasantly surprised. The rooms have been cleansed of their dark and garish trappings, with new paint and wood floors throughout. Wider openings were installed between the barroom and adjoining dining rooms, better connecting the public spaces. Updated landscaping has breathed fresh life into the 60-seat patio.

La Boca, which is Spanish for "the mouth," starts diners off with a tantalizing way to stuff theirs. Presented alongside a basket of mixed breads is a trio of house-made toppers. Black bean, sun-dried tomato and honeyed butter spreads allow diners to mix and match flavors and spices.

It would be a challenge to find a better steak sandwich ($9.50) than the one served here. Thick, juicy and tender chunks of marinated beef are tossed with sautéed mushrooms and onions, blanketed in melted havarti and packed into a rosemary-studded bun. All this sandwich lacks is the vinegary kick of the promised chimichurri sauce. And the accompanying fried yuca chips? They have been replaced by good but mainstream french fries.

Better examples of La Boca's trademark Latin-inspired comfort food can be found in the appealing starter section. Three fat and flaky empanadas ($6) are filled with a contemporary blend of chicken, spinach and brie. A smoky tomato salsa adds an additional layer of depth and flavor. Corn, manchego and roasted tomato sauce add a tasty twist to a thin-crusted pizza ($9) with rock shrimp. Another pie showcases chorizo, mushrooms and Monterey jack ($8). The fried wonton app ($8) is one of the rare misses among the starters. These crunchy pillows fry up puffy but empty, with only a scant trace of the shrimp and cheese filling.

We devour La Boca's rich and earthy black bean soup ($5), a version that happily lacks any inventive twists. On the flip side, it's difficult to nail down the heritage of the shredded pork egg rolls ($6). Don't get me wrong — we praised these deep-fried, pork-filled beauties as the highlight of one meal. We just couldn't find the connection. Same goes for a plate of addictive calamari ($9), so light and crisp we inhale it like popcorn. The ginger, lime and chili accents, while perfectly conceived, feel more Asian than Latin.

Eventually, we stop scrutinizing every dish's pedigree and simply enjoy them for what they are. An expertly grilled and sliced flank steak ($15) is topped with peppers and onions and sided by fluffy herbed rice. Juicy white-meat chicken ($13) is carved thin and sauced with a tropical mango glaze. The poultry is paired with a well-seasoned quinoa and orzo salad.

There's a bit too much sweet for my taste going on in the scampi entrée ($16.50). Three large, prosciutto-wrapped shrimp are seated in a syrupy fennel sauce. Next door, candy-sweet coconut tarts up a slightly gummy risotto.

Like the food menu, the wine list borrows from multiple locales. Diners can compare chardonnays made in California, Australia and Argentina. There is a Chilean pinot noir, Italian prosecco and French Pouilly-Fuissé. But for my money, a pitcher ($20) of the refreshing red or white sangria may be the best deal in the house.

There may be no better way to inject some Latin spice into the 'hood than through dance. Owner Kutkut has launched weekly salsa nights and bi-weekly tango nights on Saturdays and Sundays, respectively. Interested parties can show up for the lesson portion of the night or simply stroll in for drinks, dinner and dancing on the gleaming hardwood floors.

dining@clevescene.com

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