Jul 17, 2010

Poco's: Being Good Wins Out

Restaurant: Poco's On the Boulevard
Location: 3063 Southwest Boulevard, KC MO
Food: Latin American Cuisine, both upscale and traditional, plus down-home breakfast
Service: Casual, but attentive and nice
Atmosphere: Laid back, easy going, but not rundown
Price: All over the board. Entrees ranging from the $20's down to single digits
Rating: two napkins

Poco's On the Boulevard is a restaurant it seems few people know much about. And after my recent trip there, I'm still not sure I know much about it, either. The one thing about Poco's of which I am certain, however, is that it's surprisingly good.

It was quite some time ago I read a story in The Pitch saying the vacated Waid's on Southwest Boulevard was going to become a new Latin American restaurant called Poco's. The owner had apparently achieved some success with a place on Broadway called Poco's, among other things (The Grille/Boca Boca). Always looking for upgrades to the Mexican and Latin American cuisine scene in KC, I was pretty excited to try it. And then the next three years passed. So it felt like a long awaited and fateful moment last Saturday night when we found ourselves rolling down the Boulevard and pulling into that old diner's lot, hungry for something spicy.

Walking in I said, "I have no idea what to expect with this place. I think it'll either be close to my expectations and extremely pleasant, or totally bogus and a huge letdown." My confusion about what Poco's really is starts with their website. The logo in the upper left - used on all the restaurant's signage - though presumably tasteful, is fairly whimsical and lighthearted in its design. The food photography and fonts used on the rest of the pages, however, would make one think the place had a black tie dress code. Let's review the restaurant based on the main pods on the website's home page:

Reservations: The scripted, styled font and photo of a hard-backed, lined, formal guest book with gold-tipped fountain pen screams "fine dining - better call ahead". When we walked in at 8:00 on Saturday, there was only one other couple in attendance, mostly done with their food. So calling ahead would seem less critical than we were led to believe. Regardless, our hostess/server was nice, fun, prompt, happy... she was a true pleasure. Not at all formal, but perfectly professional. A great fit for the place. (She also did a fantastic job of complimenting our choices, like corn tortillas over flour for my mole and Elizabeth's decisions to switch from beer to a margarita. She made us feel... wise, almost. How nice!)

Menu: Here the site showcases a lamb chop, with the rib bone perfectly "Frenched" (if that's a word), cleared of meat for use as the handle of a beautiful meat popsicle. Red wine and delicate greens are romantically blurred in the background. And to Poco's credit, grilled rack of lamb (Cordero Borracho) is the first thing listed on the dinner menu. Indeed, the small-ish menu is all over the place, with the aforementioned elegant $24.99 entree juxtaposed with Mexi-classics like Fajitas ($13-$16) and Fish Tacos ($12.95), also mingling with real head-scratchers like Risotto and the Pasta of the Day. With such a romantic yet strangely varied menu, I'm calling Poco's the Don Quixote of the Boulevard.

The chips and salsa were... interesting. The salsa seemed fresh, yet somehow muted in flavor. Little spice, little acid from the tomato. Not a whole lot of flavor, but not terrible, either. The chips were slightly thicker than the "restaurant style" tortilla chips you find most other places in that area. Better, I'd say. They were lightly salted and seasoned with what looked to me like cumin, or possible paprika. All in all, a good chips and salsa combo, but nowhere near the best in town.

Elizabeth went with the Goat Cheese Vegetable Tamales appetizer, which turned out to be a tamale revelation for us. Two nicely sized open corn husks were the bed for tightly packed massa, inside of which were thin strips of roasted onion and red pepper. A green sauce and crumbles of goat cheese sat atop each of the tamales and looked to have been quickly heated under a broiler. As tamales can be slightly flavorless, these were exceptional for the charred taste that came on the pepper and onion, and the tang from the goat cheese on top. I'd had jalapeno cheese grtis for breakfast that morning and these tamales seemed almost like a fancied, more exotic cousin to that dish, the main difference being they were pressed and steamed, drier and holding their form. Delicious, indeed, though I wish the order came by the dozen.

I had a furious mental debate - enchiladas v. mole (chicken) - when contemplating my order, but decided I was craving the sweet sauciness of the mole the most and went that direction with the server's nod of approval. The platter that was returned as my reward was exactly what I'd envisioned. The left third of my plate held the typical Mexican rice and refried beans (hearty, flavorful beans, though, not the runny bland ones I'm more used to getting). The right side was a big pool of deep brown mole sauce and tender chunks of chicken. Admittedly, it was a lot of sauce and only a little chicken, but definitely enough to fill the three warm, pliable corn tortillas that came wrapped up in a paper towel on the side.

I found it exceptionally pleasing, then, that when our server noticed I'd gobbled down all three tortillas, she took it upon herself to offer up additionals... at no extra cost. It was insightful that she apparently knew I wasn't loving the idea of either wasting the rest of the sauce and chicken left on my plate or being forced to eat it like soup (either way, I was going to consume every last bite of it). The mole was a chocolatey one but, unlike others I've had in town, had the nice slow burn as an undertone. Clearly the appropriate regimen of chilies had been employed in the cooking process, which made this mole's depth far better than its local competitors that I've sampled.

Cutting the richness of our slightly heavy meals were a couple of sugary, citrusy margaritas. I couldn't quite see how they were made, but given the server's recommendation and the flavors I was picking up, I'd bet they were NOT from a bottle of Jose Cuervo pre-mix. It really hit the spot.

And then a funny thing happened. When we reflexively declined a look at the dessert menu, being completely full and with sport-eating regret seeping into our psyches, a beautiful plate of honey and cocoa scented flan showed up. A darn good flan. Now, Elizabeth and I are not custard people. Creme brulee has to be really good to not gross us out, and flan has even less of a chance of hitting the mark, what with being cold and served outside a container, molded like a Mayan temple of fat (okay, I have issues). It was firm, yet so incredibly smooth, and the cocoa gave the caramelly liquid in which the flan rested a wonderful bitterness and depth of flavor. It was truly a sweet treat to end the meal.

Catering: On the right hand side of the web page is the Catering pod, decorated with a photo of shining stainless steel heated trays with linens primly knotted around each handle. Contrastingly, but not disappointingly, the Poco's catering trucks were parked out back, somewhat less ceremonious in appearance. If they serve the same food as can be found in the restaurant, though, who cares? Bring it to me in a dump truck as far as I'm concerned.

To end the evening, our server told us that Poco's also still specializes in breakfast/brunch, too, which contains both diner classics like those found at the Waid's back in the day, as well as great Mexican favorites like huevos con chorizo. A promising idea for our next fuzzy morning after over-indulging, perhaps.

Poco's may not be exactly what it's trying to market itself as, but I'd urge you not to get hung up on that confusion. It's a Latin American restaurant on the Boulevard with good service, a comfortable dining room, and some solid food. That's really all you need to know.

Rating: two napkins

Poco's on the Boulevard on Urbanspoon

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