Zocalito Latin Bistro keeps it real
Dining out can easily turn into a game of love ’em and leave ’em ” discover a gem of a restaurant, go back once or twice to try a smattering of appetizers and entrees, and then hunt for the next place in town where you can repeat the cycle. In Aspen’s volatile marketplace of high rents and high-powered foodies, a restaurant needs the right mix of worldliness and accessibility to become the sort of place patrons love to rediscover.
After a year and a half in Aspen, Zocalito Latin Bistro is the sort of culinary trip that makes eating adventurous. The bistro is known for traditional dishes of Latin America and Spain. Owner Michael Beary spent 10 years as a chef at Cache Cache in Aspen, traveling the world and learning to cook the sort of cuisine one doesn’t regularly find in the United States ” or at least dishes that aren’t replicated well in the United States. Zocalito’s rellenos, for example, aren’t the greasy, cheese-filled gut bombs you’ll find elsewhere, but a delicate combination of a poblano pepper stuffed with chicken (or potato), cheese, onion and tomatoes and served with a mild tomato sauce so that you can enjoy the spicy and rich taste of the pepper.
Beary first opened Zocalito in Carbondale, where it became a hit with locals, before opening up a second branch on the Hyman Avenue Mall in Aspen, in the space formerly occupied by Takah Sushi. He recently sold the Carbondale restaurant in order to focus on business in Aspen. He has transformed the underground space into a warm, sultry atmosphere with ample booth seating where a sushi bar used to stand, elevated seating near the bar, and plenty of tables in the back room.
Zocalito’s menu is your first foray into learning about traditional Latin American cooking ” most items include a short explanation on what makes the ingredients authentic. The Mayan fried calamari includes annatto seed, considered the “saffron of Central America due to its color and unique flavor,” for example. The guacamole is made with panela cheese, which is similar to ricotta and imparts a firmer texture and a pleasantly salty taste. The Spanish Tilapia Veracruz entree, comes with an amontillado (a citrus, nutty sherry) sauce.
To make sure things are authentic, Beary finds himself purchasing pounds of dried chilies from places like Oaxaca, Mexico, and hoping he has bought enough to last Aspen’s busiest dining seasons. Chilies you’ve never heard of are on the Zocalito menu, and Beary won’t hesitate to tell you what makes each flavor unique and why it’s essential to the dish. The mozzarella-stuffed skirt steak, for example, is grilled and then served with a chilihaucle sauce, which is “fruity with medium spice,” and rounded out nicely with some rustic bean tacos on the side.
In researching what to serve, Beary has found that a number of dishes have their own variations depending on the region where they are prepared. One snapper dish has a different style in Guatemala, Belize, Mexico and Spain. Beary’s contribution is taking what he’s learned in the French technique of cooking, and keeping dishes true to their ancestral roots. He has adapted traditional ceviche, fish and shrimp left to “cook” in lime juice, and then cooked to a medium consistency that is less chewy than the dish can sometimes be.
“We try to feature a little of everything ” we’re just trying to show people how good this cuisine can be, on the rustic edge of Central and South America,” he says. “We’re trying to heighten awareness.”
Subterranean spaces may be affordable options for local restaurateurs, but they’re never going to be the most visible spots in town. Blessedly, last summer the Aspen City Council loosened restrictions on patio dining, paving the way for many less-visible restaurants to place tables outside for better ambiance and plenty of good advertising. Zocalito will have some more tables on the Hyman Avenue mall this summer, and may even pair up with neighbor CB Paws for occasional dog-friendly “yappy hours,” Beary said.
You can’t go wrong with cocktails at Zocalito: Beary’s margaritas are made with fresh lime juice for an incredibly light, refreshing flavor. His mojitos include mint from his backyard garden in Carbondale mashed with fresh lime juice, cane sugar, Cruzan rum and soda. All of the wines in the restaurant are either Spanish or Central American.
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