Is it sensible to like a restaurant for its ambition, even if it isn’t completely succeeding? Because that’s what’s happening as I struggle to assess Chico Malo, a modern Mexican restaurant in Downtown’s CityScape so cheeky (the name means “bad boy” in Spanish) that I find myself drawn to it for all the wrong reasons. But that’s how it works with bad boys, isn’t it?
I’m a sucker for the clever décor, which features mischievous imagery from local mural artists, like a bespectacled Frida Kahlo flashing gang signs. Surely it’s no accident that there are representations of roosters, the over-sexed chicos malos of the barnyard, in every direction. Friendly servers reinforce the upbeat vibe, as do imaginative cocktails created by Zachary O’Haire (Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour), including the Bolo de Coco (“drunk coconut”) made with cachaça, Brazil’s cane-sugar spirit.
Meanwhile, the menu has its own irreverent charm, offering a short list of appetizers, salads, tortas and dinner-only entreés given the occasional South American inflection. Nine photogenic and impossibly florid street tacos, tucked in house-made corn tortillas, are the emphasis here. These are not the tacos of your childhood, but rather the deluxe doings of a fine-dining chef with a fertile imagination, namely Executive Chef Steven “Chops” Smith (Searsucker). Most of the ingredients skew trendy and labor-intensive: fermented pineapple relish, orange-cumin gel, kimchi and curried sultanas. In theory, I like this high-end vandalism of culinary tradition, but too often the quirky ingredients (about six per taco) get lost in the shuffle. Some tacos are better than others (maybe the al pastor?) but none is worth a special trip. (Note: Shortly before we went to press, Smith left the restaurant and was replaced by sous chef German Garcia-Sega, so we’ll see what happens to the tacos.)
Then again, a few of the non-taco dishes are fantástico! I love the generously portioned guacamole made at the table with a choice of add-ins that include mango, pomegranate seeds, pepitas and chicharrón. From the appetizer section comes elote (spicy, buttery street corn poached in corn nut broth) and Nichie’s, a gooey sampler of sorts with crispy Peruvian potato-stuffed tacos, Oaxacan cheese fondue and more. My número uno may be the lunch-only carne asada torta, ladled with mole hollandaise and topped with an oozy fried egg.
The chile ribeye, a dinner entrée topped with the same hollandaise and served with trumpet mushrooms, has the same flavor profile at a much higher price point. It’s great, but shelling out 36 bucks to sit in what at night feels like a loud bar? No, gracias. Seared diver scallops with chimichurri and crunchy, dried out Mahón-poblano grits similarly don’t seem worth the money.
Desserts are strictly OK, including a semi-bland pineapple-chile panna cotta, and reflective of the whole: To be really good, this bad boy needs to stop making everything so complicated.
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