First Bites is a look at restaurants that have opened recently, not a full-fledged review.
The food: Begin with bits. This spot (like sibling littleSpoon) places a premium on the bright and the lush, in just-a-few-bite measures. So there are picaderas, botanas and bocadillos (nibbles, snacks and small bites) before you even get to the list of tacos, sold individually.
Expect lots of words you don’t know if your Mexican food experience has been mainstream, and expect plenty of vivid produce among the corn and protein. “Chewy chips” are a signature, our server advised, and while only half of ours were actually chewy (the others hard), their accompanying guacamole shone – and I expect the frying to get better.
Everything else was better: Perfectly grilled chunks of octopus (in the composed plate category, but a good starter, too) came with a charred quarter-avocado, curls of cucumber, radish, grapefruit sections and crackery crisps. An al pastor (marinated pork) taco packed a punch, and while we saw diners profess surprise at the diminutive size (they’re about 3 inches across), we got as much meat in one as you do at most taquerias: It’s just that the whole thing, tender corn tortilla and all, is three bites. They’re good bites, an avocado cream and a little pineapple elevating this version; others include rajas (poblano chiles and cream and onions), tinga (sort of chicken stew), asada (sirloin with chimichurri) and beer-battered flounder.
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Leg of lamb, among the larger “plates for the table,” arrived exceedingly rare (sharper knife, please!), but with a muslin bag of fresh, tiny tortillas. Lubina – a whole bronzino – was grilled beautifully (and our server was pleased we knew how to eat it; he’d had to reorder for someone surprised to find bones) and our favorite dish of the visit.
The drinks: The wine list is short but thoughtful (many burbujas, aka bubbles!) and there are a couple of beer options, but cocktails get serious: Four margaritas, four tequila cocktails (employing everything from watermelon juice to ginger beer) and mezcal drinks, too, including the house-special Machete (!), an alcoholic sno-cone of sweetness that adds flavored Patron, tangerine and mint.
Gin drinkers, for once, aren’t given short shrift: In the All-Star, a snifter of gin with star anise and kaffir lime leaves afloat, comes with a bottle of Fever Tree tonic water with which you can dilute (or sip separately).
The look: A quirky take on modern – dark-wood-paneled walls with back-bar insets for bottles, and steel window casings, and a swath of artificial turf; chrome-wire chairs pull up to dark tables (there’s banquette seating too) and there’s room for about a dozen at the bar, plus a handful at a kitchen bar. Concrete flooring completes the this-is-going-to-be-loud equation. Servingware is minimalist (clear glass and black), showing off colors well, and the overall effect is somehow cozy. Note: There’s not anywhere to wait gracefully, so reservations are highly recommended. P.S. This used to be the Penguin.
The service: Once we were seated, ours were engaging and engaged, answering well and dealing swiftly with what they could; things are still being worked out. But there’s some disconnect in the welcome: It’s a tiny place, and well-publicized, so it’s going to be busy, but hosts who flatly say, “Yeah, it’s a two-hour wait” with a “could you move now?” eyebrow raise don’t encourage return visits (I both was told and watched others be told this in the same way on separate stops). Another night, a host greeted people warmly and worked to offer less-busy times and suggestions; that’s got to be the standard.
The details: Open 3-11 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon-11 Saturday, noon-9 Sunday; dishes about $3-$27); 1205 Thomas Ave.; 980-498-6576; website isn’t yet operational and Facebook page is minimal at press time.