In a Crowded Taco Field, Paloma is Doing It Differently and Better

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click to enlarge In a Crowded Taco Field, Paloma is Doing It Differently and Better
Photo by Doug Trattner

One comment that repeatedly comes up when talking to Cleveland diners is, “You know what we could really use? Another taco restaurant.”

I’m kidding, of course. Like most American cities, Cleveland has been deluged by taquerias of every shape, size and persuasion. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for one more, especially when it outshines many of its contemporaries. That’s what’s happening at Paloma, where chef-partners Zach Ladner and Carl Quagliata – along with chef de cuisine Ky’tana Bradley – are proving meal by meal that quality always makes a difference.

If you’re going to stand out in the crowded field of tacos, you have to do them differently, do them better or do both. At Paloma, the owners didn’t set out to offer guests a so-called “authentic” Mexican food experience. Nor did they desire to be another budget build-your-own taqueria, where the food tastes like it slid off the end of an assembly line. What exits the kitchen here can only come from the mind of a Culinary Institute of America graduate who grew up in Texas.

A quick glance at the menu shows taco fillings that are composed with the same level of attention a chef would devote to an entrée. Proteins like lamb, duck, oxtail, beef short rib and fresh-catch seafood take the place of the ubiquitous ground beef, pulled pork and white-meat chicken. Instead of bland shredded cheese, wilted greens and watery salsas, the tacos here are topped with dewy micro-herbs, crispy veggies, vibrant sauces and salty cotija cheese.

Lamb ($16) is slow roasted until it’s luscious, supple and flecked with char. The flavorful meat is paired with mint, shredded cabbage, garlic crème fraiche and sliced jalapeno. In another, shredded duck carnitas ($16) is garnished with greens, thin-sliced radish, earthy salsa macha and a dusting of cotija. Other meat-based options feature birria-style oxtail, house-made chorizo and a fajita-in-a-shell taco with skirt steak, onions, peppers, guacamole and salsa.

Paloma offers a trio of fish options, including a daily special starring gorgeous ancho-dusted red snapper filets ($16) that are sauteed and tucked into tortillas with guacamole, mango relish and chimichurri. Vegetarians win Taco Tuesday thanks to savory, meaty hen of the woods mushrooms ($15), which are roasted and topped with peppers, onions and salsa verde. All tacos come three to an order (no mix-and-matching permitted) and believe me when I say they are robust.

The quickest way to ruin any of the above fillings is by spooning them into a dry, brittle corn shell – or worse, a cold, thick flour tortilla from a plastic bag. At Paloma, those thoughtful fillings are popped into freshly pressed and griddled flour tortillas that are prepared in full view of the dining room. The warm, tender, slightly puffy shells support the fillings but give way with little chew. Heat-seekers should request the house habanero elixir, which is so spicy it comes in an eye dropper.

Paloma’s starters are far from run-of-the-mill as well. The kitchen’s aguachile ($17) is tart, bracing and bursting with tropical freshness. Citrus-cooked shrimp, red onion and avocado arrive in a kelly-green sauce of lime, cilantro and chiles. A bag of thin chips is served alongside. Cigar-thick octopus tentacles ($21) are grilled and paired with chorizo and potatoes to create a sort of surf-and-turf hash. Queso ($14) fans will dig the silky Oaxacan cheese, which is served in a wide cast-iron skillet alongside fresh tortillas.

Paloma’s signature salad ($12) features grapefruit, avocado, red onion, shaved fennel and arugula tossed in a citrus vinaigrette. In terms of sides, there’s a nice selection of rice, beans and roasted vegetable dishes. The refried beans ($7) with brown butter and caramelized onions is over-the-top rich and creamy.

Desserts are in the capable hands of wife Alyssa Ladner, who in addition to acting as the restaurant’s GM was the former pastry chef at Giovanni’s. Options during our visit included warm banana cake with coffee ice cream and toffee sauce and a Mexican hot chocolate brownie sundae with dulce de leche ice cream and chile-spiced chocolate sauce.

Ladner and Quagliata snagged the last big restaurant space at Van Aken District, a 4,400-square-foot property on the public green. The glass-wrapped restaurant is bright, colorful and casual, with an open kitchen, 24-seat oval bar and windows that open to a spacious front patio. Come spring, that patio and bar combination will be the place to go for lazy weekend brunches built around sunny fruit salads, breakfast tacos and tequila-fueled cocktails (the namesake paloma comes to mind).

In addition to Paloma, Giovanni’s, Smokin’ Q’s BBQ and The Village Butcher, the owners recently announced a new project in Little Italy.

Paloma
20041 Walker Rd., Shaker Hts.
216-465-1336
palomavanaken.com


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About The Author

Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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