Lolita Cocina is not just a restaurant, it's a scene. From the endless rows of tequila lining the bar to its hopelessly sexy digs, it's hard not to feel as if you've stumbled upon a modern Mexican speakeasy complete with a mouth-watering menu. One doesn't dine at Lolita as much as escape and feel as if they've discovered a slightly hipper version of oneself.
Located on Mill Street in Byram, Lolita Cocina's personality reflects its zip code, an up-and-coming neighborhood sandwiched between Port Chester, known for an abundance of south of the border restaurants, and the posh town of Greenwich located literally at the southern tip of Fairfield County.
The hipster Mexican vibe begins as soon as you cross the threshold into a roughly elegant space punctuated with striking red glass Murano chandeliers and swaths of brick and black leather banquettes. Dim lighting, fun music and the din of the near-nightly crowds that flock to Lolita fill the space to complete its inimitable scene. But don't let the carefully cultivated cool throw you, this place can throw down some serious food.
First let's set some expectations. Lolita does not feign to be your typical or traditional Mexican restaurant. And thank goodness for that. Purists may find the creative liberties taken with Mexican staples such as tamales or carnitas unsettling, but I found the approach refreshing. Their dishes belie a respect for a simple but savvy palate with a dash of showmanship (lobster in your guacamole?) but always brought it back to what matters. Darn good food.
If you arrive thirsty, come prepared with a designated driver. There are more types of tequila (150 and counting to be exact) and enough margaritas than you could possibly try in one visit, including their signature Lolita Margarita and the spicy Diablo, complete with habanero peppers, black pepper and red sugar garnish. The non-alcoholic fresh fruit aqua frescas are excellent. I tasted the lime coco, made up of fresh lime, coconut, citrus fruits, garnished with mint and topped with a single perfect blackberry.
With a drink in hand, a fresh bucket of chips greeted our table at Lolita. The requisite Mexican restaurant amuse bouche, these chips come thin, crispy and salty, and armed with their own trio of dipping sauces. A flurry of hands and murmers of delight settled over our table as we tasted our way through the red roasted tomato, chipotle cream and green tomatillo salsas.
A palate cleanser of fresh mint grapefruit granita garnished with a shot of tequila arrived as we ruminated on the array of starters, entrees and sides to split between five hungry women.
The fresh guacamole came out first, piled high with cilantro. This savory Mexican staple is prepared three distinct ways at Lolita. Fresco, picante, or especial. The latter comes with the addition of jumbo lump crab, lobster and chile-garlic butter. This interpretation is definitely a little more Greenwich, a little less Port Chester.
The Tortilla Soup is a subtle and simple way to start, with little slices of jalapeno and avocado bobbing to the surface. The brothy soup was good but the best was yet to come.
Lolita, you had me at your fried oysters. I'm guessing that if they could prepare anything, in the same manner as these oysters, I would throw some elbows to get my share. And probably order seconds. And thirds. From the menu and what I could decipher, it was a mixture of red chili masa dredged and then fried and served with chipotle crema (seen above). Another crowd pleaser were the bbq spare ribs laced with coffee bean, chocolate and orange glaze.
Our first entree, the Blackened Grouper Tacos, were an instant hit. A lighter and more complex take on the much beloved taco, hunks of blackened grouper were paired with jicama slaw, chipotle crema, and pepitas (!) instantly awakening what I like to call my taco appetite. I am a grazer, but put a good taco in front of me and I'll put any professional eater to shame.
With our collective taste buds thoroughly aroused, we were on to the Adobo Chicken Tamale. This deconstructed take on the Mexican staple was subtly enchanting, made even more so by its sweet corn, red chili and black bean sauce with a touch of garlic crema.
The Carnitas came to the table looking like a savory fjord of pork. In other words, a lovely hunk of meat. A thin crust on the outside gave way to a tender interior made more inviting with a salsa verde and red onion escabeche on the side. Another departure from tradition and another big win for the menu.
At this point, our dinner entered what I like to call "no carne left behind" territory. At the urging of our waitress, we ordered the Carne Asada, a garlic marinated skirt steak served with flour tortillas, guacamole, salsa roja, grilled peppers and jalapenos. If you're keeping track, we not-so-shamelessly just ate our way through the animal kingdom. This was a great choice and certainly one of their specialties as I looked around and noticed we were not alone in enjoying this dish.
The sancho, or side dishes languished at the bottom of the menu but were as intriguing as some of the primeros, so naturally we decided to order a few to taste. It was a good thing we did or else we would have never discovered the wonder that was the Chipotle Potato Gratin or the Iron Pan Cornbread. A white and sweet potato combination baked in chipotle crema, the gratin is a must if you are a fan of the marriage of potato and cheese. And really, who isn't? My heart literally skipped a beat when I tried the iron pan cornbread swimming in its own pool of butter and honey. This dish may require a medical disclaimer.
But wait, there's more. If you can't continue reading, I understand. Think about how we felt. But at this point, it was mind over matter and we surrendered to the dessert menu practically in its entirety. With tequila flowing and inhibitions lowered, these desserts revealed a destination in and of themselves.
I'll begin with the stand-outs. The Quatro Leches Cake made us all believers in the power of a perfectly executed Mexican dessert. This fluffly buttermilk cake was soaked in coconut milk, topped with a whipped cream-candied almond frosting and covered in a dulce de leche sauce.
My personal favorite is the Bananarama, a thin and crisply fried burrito-like concoction filled with bananas and caramel. With a cheesecake-like consistency, the dish was finished with chocolate ice cream and a butterscotch sauce. This concoction evoked the underdressed and outclassed distant cousin we may be acquainted with, the churro. Then we got a chance to meet the Mexican whoopie pie. The gingerbread oreos were soft gingerbread cookies sandwiched between fresh banana buttercream. Lastly we enjoyed Lolita's interpetation of the Americanized fried ice cream treat, Buñuelos, a crunchy cinnamon-sugar tortilla and cinnamon ice cream covered with chocolate sauce.
For those disinclined to order dessert you will be pleasantly surprised. The signature Lolita dessert served to each table is a playful and sweet denouement in the form of a tower of cotton candy.
So what is Lolita. An escape? A modern Mexican speakeasy? An effortlessly hipster scene with an equally cool menu? Lolita is all of these things and more with Mexican-inspired fare that honors the spectrum of the cuisine while offerring a compelling and unique experience.
Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar is open for dinner every night at 5:30 pm and is located at 230 Mill Street in Byram, CT. information at www.lolitamexican.com