A friend of mine routinely returns from group dinners with her husband and says, “What a wonderful place that was!” He laughs and replies, “Honey, the food was lousy. It was the company you liked.”
Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s good.
I’m reminded of that at Loco Taqueria & Oyster Bar. The staff is so nice. The space looks great, with a rustic warmth — big windows, walls of brick and weathered board, artfully peeling paint here and there, and a generous U-shaped bar at the center, strings of festive lights winking above. It’s almost always crowded. (The wait for dinner can be painfully long. That big bar means fewer tables, and the place doesn’t take reservations.) Loco is run by the people behind the popular Lincoln Tavern & Restaurant across the street, and both are headed by executive chef Nicholas Dixon. The team understands the neighborhood. Salsa’s has been around since 1998, and the charms of Lee Chen’s Mexican Grill & Chinese Food, while novel, may best be enjoyed post-night out. South Boston needed an infusion of modernized Mexican flavor.
Loco’s menu is right-minded. It focuses on ceviches, tacos, and other small plates, with just a few main dishes. It puts forth big, bright tastes and some novel combinations: sea bass ceviche with amarillo leche de tigre and green mango with Thai basil ice; root beer-braised chicken tacos with spicy sweet potato puree, Asian pear, and pickled chiles. In concept, it is perfectly appealing.
But the food can be a mess, sometimes literally. On some nights, it is an outright disaster. On others, the meal starts off with promise, then devolves.
The good: Guacamole, the basic version, is just that. With well-made chips, it is hard to do better than coarsely mashed avocado with a little onion and cilantro. And these are well-made chips, thick and crisp and dusted in warm spices. Restaurants have a hard time resisting riffs on perfection, though. Charred pineapple guacamole sounds like a fine idea, but it just turns out to involve a few cubes of the fruit sprinkled about and too-heavily-spiced chips.
Tacos are tacos, eternally likable. Here, the surprise winner is a vegetarian version, with grilled avocado, oyster mushrooms, pickled onions, cotija cheese, and sriracha-lime aioli folded between double corn tortillas. The combination is creamy, bright, smoky, and satisfying. The root beer-braised chicken tacos flirt with sweetness without being cloying. The spicy sweet potato puree adds luxurious texture, and the Asian pear and red rings of chile bring welcome uplift to each bite.
Meat shouldn’t drink soda on a regular basis. Cola pork carnitas are too sweet, and the meat is dry. There isn’t enough cara cara-pineapple salsa in the mix. A fried oyster taco comes with charred green onions, the Salvadoran pickled slaw curtido, pickled cucumbers, and sriracha-lime aioli. Somehow tartness, crunch, and spice get lost, overwhelmed by tough green onions and cold fried oysters. The fried rock shrimp in a surf-and-turf taco are cold, too, and the chimichurri-marinated skirt steak is on the raw side of rare.
That sea bass ceviche that sounds so mouthwatering lacks balance, punch, and salt; the Thai basil ice appears in such minute amounts it melts before one can savor its chill. Crisp little tostadas topped with raw tuna, avocado, lime crema, and pickled serranos are much more satisfying, with layers of flavor and texture.
Loco claims to be part oyster bar, but its program is scaled down, with four varieties on offer. Fair enough, if they were well shucked, but they arrive mangled. The best part of eating oysters here is the accompaniments, two choices per order — ancho cocktail sauce (tastes like regular cocktail sauce), cucumber mignonette, and an array of flavored ices, from watermelon-mint to black pepper-pineapple. The smoked corn ice is excellent, like charcoal-grilled street corn turned to summer’s dessert. It doesn’t pair particularly well with oysters, however.
There is actual grilled corn on the menu, rolled in garlic-chili mojo sauce, cotija cheese, and espelette pepper. It’s on the dry side, but the flavors breathe some life into the kernels.
It is a genius idea to turn churros into a savory snack, the sticks of fried dough flavored mildly with crab and potato and served with charred green onion tartar sauce. I doubt the kitchen was attempting to turn taquitos sweet, but a duck version with plum sauce could almost be dessert.
Where Loco really goes awry is with the main courses. Citrus crema-marinated half-chicken is dry, served with equally dry papas bravas and a bit of pineapple-mango salsa. And the plate is a mess. Is it supposed to look like a tossed salad?
The chimichurri-marinated steak from the surf-and-turf tacos is also served on skewers, lacking any chimichurri zing and still exceedingly rare. The avocado salad it comes with contains approximately 1.5 bites of avocado. Is it supposed to look like it was hit by a gale-force wind?
Crispy sea bass isn’t crispy, although it is bland. There’s not enough cara cara-pineapple salsa. Is it supposed to look like a drunken maniac dropped the ingredients onto the plate from a great height?
Nearly every component on the larger plates can be found on the smaller ones. One is better off ordering those.
As for dessert, there are mediocre churros with very good chocolate sauce and a rotating concrete — ice cream mixed with different things, like overripe bananas (bad) or more of that chocolate sauce (much better).
The beer list skews lighter and easy-drinking, right for the food. The wine list is brief but contains some nice surprises. There are margaritas, of course. The basic El Jefe is acceptable, although no one ever offers salt on the rim. It seems to come without as a default. The Little Devil, a spicy version, needs more sweet. And the Coco needs less; it tastes like Key lime pie. The Rainbow Dragon, a tequila mai tai, and the mezcal-ized mule El Tonto are better bets.
As for the Chica Loco, I cannot bring myself to try it, both because of its plethora of fruity, sweet ingredients and its lack of noun-adjective agreement.
But this is no place for sticklers. The tagline here is: “A little crazy is a good thing.” Loco is fun. And that suits Southie to a T.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary ★ ★ ★ Excellent | ★ ★ Good
★ Fair | (No stars) Poor