During a recent visit to Cocina Real, I finally began to appreciate the appeal of Laredo’s and why the local Mexican restaurant chain is resoundingly popular.
Years ago, after getting served food with “cheese sauce” and canned mushrooms, I swore off Laredo’s and stayed away at all costs.
Cocina Real is owned by some of the same family members who own Laredo’s restaurants, and the menus are identical. I’m unclear as to why they don’t just call it Laredo’s since the other three area locations have such a strong following.
After Thanksgiving, Mi Cocina, 6230 University Ave., which was known for the past year as Cocina Real, moved into the former home of Tapas Rias in Middleton.
(Julian Escamilla, the former owner of Tapas Rias, said there is no news yet regarding the much anticipated relocation of his Spanish restaurant).
The new Cocina Real is roomier than Mi Cocina and has a plain but pleasant atmosphere with spacious, comfortable booths. The TV at the bar was tuned to baseball with the sound on apparently for the benefit of one guy waiting for a take-out order. Eventually, the television was put on mute and we were treated to pop music at an appropriate volume.
The meal was surprisingly good, starting with the appetizer, queso fundido ($5.99), probably the best version of this I’ve had. The melted Chihuahua cheese was full of crumbled chorizo, cilantro and roasted poblano peppers, which the menu refers to as rajas.
It was served with flour tortillas instead of chips, which was appreciated since we had already snacked on delicious warm tortilla chips and a mild salsa with plenty of onion. Instead, we rolled up fantastic cheesy soft tacos. The cheese pulled off in long tangles, making the tacos somewhat comical to assemble.
It’s worth getting an order of guacamole, which is prepared tableside by an employee who wheels over a little ramshackle stand dubbed the “holy guacamole bar,” complete with styrofoam tip cup. He cut open the avocados, and in the case of the guacamole rostizado ($6.49), added roasted poblanos, onions, tomato, and corn kernels along with cilantro and garlic.
“This is as fresh as it gets,” my companion observed. The guac was too heavy on onion, but there were so many ingredients in it, each bite was different.
The enormous serving of guacamole was prepared and served in a molcajete, those familiar round, three-legged basalt bowls. Our welcome chips were long gone, and we had to ask for new chips for the guacamole.
By the time our entrees arrived, we could barely eat another bite, and both dishes were deserving of our attention and appetites.
The fajitas jardin ($9.49) featured limp, overcooked asparagus, but was otherwise an unassailable mix of zucchini, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, onions, fresh mushrooms and green peppers. The grilled vegetables went beyond the usual, expected Mexican restaurant veggies, and came with flour tortillas, seasoned rice and refried beans sprinkled with cheese.
Another nice mix of vegetables, which included cauliflower, came with our other entree, the pollo Campeche ($13.49). The thin, at times dry, chicken breasts were topped with good-sized scallops and shrimp, entire grilled green onions and Oaxaca cheese in a white wine sauce.
Both dishes, as good as they were, tasted better as leftovers the next day, maybe because they weren’t competing with the outstanding appetizers.
Even though we arrived at 7:30 p.m., happy hour was still in effect and we were able to order a huge sangria and margarita for $5 each. Both were excellent.
Success at Cocina Real likely depends on how you order, but based on this recent experience, Laredo’s is looking a lot better.