Jul. 21—Restaurants and food culture are mysterious in their intertwining ways. There are some geographic locations, for instance, that would seem ideal for a dining destination — and yet no matter how many restaurants might open there, nothing works.
Other times, a new place will open in a nondescript spot and, for whatever reason, it seems preordained for huge success. In the latter context, we have La Llorona in Niantic. From the moment it opened in April, in the building that formerly housed Burke's Tavern and more recently the Lionheart Tavern, folks have happily waited in lines to try (and return for more of) La Llorona's "progressive Mexican cuisine."
Given that my wife Eileen and I grew up in Texas, where one can eat truly excellent Mexican food three times a day and go months without revisiting the same restaurant, our quarter-century in southeastern Connecticut hasn't offered the same opportunities. There's an abundance of other excellent cuisines indigenous to the area, of course, and we've luxuriated thereof. But the opportunities for Mexican have slowly increased, and we're always happy to hear of a new place focused on south of the border possibilities.
We visited La Llorona on a recent weekend evening with our pals Susan and Ted. True to rumor, the place was popping. The outdoor patio, with its wrought iron fencing and umbrella'd tables, was full of diners — many of whom had large goblets of margaritas to help lubricate festive discourse.
The interior was equally busy, but after a painless 15-minute wait, we were shown to a window-front high-top table in the dining room. From our slightly elevated vantage point, we couldn't help but feel happy because the diners seemed to be having such a collective good time. The spirit was contagious.
Too, it's a lovely and thematically conceptualized room. The vibe is Cantina Chic, with patterned tile floors, comfortably spaced tables, and, along the side wall, a row of step-up booths separated by inset wood paneling to the ceiling. Each booth has a rustic, faux overhang over which are blue wooden letters in stylized font that spell out the name of Mexican states like Jalisco or Oaxaca. Inside the booth itself, the respective state is reflected in a photograph.
The remaining walls of the large, square room are rust-colored and offset by framed artwork including a large painting of the iconic image of La Llorona herself. In the Aztec creation myth, La Llorona is "The Hungry Woman," who is constantly crying for food.
Well, she won't be hungry long if she supps at her namesake restaurant in Niantic.
The portions are more than filling, but that's getting slightly ahead of ourselves. Let me say that our server was delightful throughout our experience. She refilled drinks and answered veggie-centric questions, and the food came at impressive speed considering the full house.
Looking at the menu and the evening's specials, I tried to get a handle on what, exactly, "progressive Mexican" means. Turns out, the restaurant, a family operation with roots in Michoacán and plenty of practical experience in southeastern Connecticut including at the Steak Loft, presents a lot of familiar items — burritos, tacos, fajitas and more — in a variety of combinations and with twists courtesy of family recipes. The idea of progressive also extends to the staff's happy willingness to respond to customer requests and comments.
Ted, Susan and Eileen each tried margaritas served in large, ice-choked goblets, and agreed they had just enough tequila and an ideal tart/sweet ratio.
From over a dozen appetizer options ranging from nachos and crispy chicken wings to crab ceviche tostadas and green mole tamales, we tried two. One — because you've gotta sample some of the basics, right? — was Chips & Guacamole ($11); the other was Elote Callejero (Mexican street corn, $7).
The guac was chunky and mellow, the chips were warm and crisp, and the combination was particularly fun when dipped into a thin, peppery house salsa. The street corn — served on the cob with a slathered coating of mayo, cotija cheese, playful chiltepin pepper and flecks of cilantro — was overly salty, so much so that it was hard to appreciate the other calibrated flavors.
Eileen, still and forever a vegetarian, went with Enchiladas de Pollo o Queso ($16). The cheese is Oaxaca — a white cheese similar in texture to mozzarella, so it has a good goo factor — and you get your choice of sauces: guajillo sauce or salsa verde. Harkening back to childhood vacations in New Mexico, Eileen ordered it "Christmas," which is to say with both red and green sauces. The guajillo sauce was smoky and intense, like the pepper for which it is named; the verde tangy and bright like the tomatillos it contained. Merry Christmas! The enchiladas are also topped with lettuce, red onion, shaved radish and cotija cheese and are served with earthy refried black beans and al dente rice. Altogether a delicious and filling dish.
For entrees, I was extremely tempted by Tacos Doradoes de Flor de Calabeza y Camarones ($22) — stuffed, crispy-fried tacos with squash blossoms, fried cheese and shrimp, served with house rice and beans and red and green salsas. In the end, I opted for a Burrito de Carne al Horno ($17).
It was a massive brick of fun. A large flour tortilla tent contained torn, tender and smoky pork shoulder along with adroitly cooked rice and beans, shredded crisp lettuce, queso and créme fresca, and a rich ladling of the guajillo gravy. I liked it fine but am haunted by the shrimp/squash tacos I DIDN'T try. Next time?
Ted and Susan have a relative in Dallas they visit with some frequency, and so are similarly wise to the nuances of Tex-Mex and Mexican cooking outside New England. As a go-to standard by which she can reliably compare and contrast, Susan asked for the Chiles Rellenos ($18), which comprises egg-battered and roasted poblano peppers and simmered in a stewed tomato sauce. The dish was served with hot corn tortillas and rice and beans, which Susan said were prepared with authenticity rather than trotted out as the ol' requisite side dish.
When faced with so many choices, Ted shrewdly went with a fajitas combination — chicken, shrimp and and carne asada ($22 for all three) — and they arrived with the hissing sizzle and that grilled/citrus aroma that causes the whole dining area to swoon. Also onboard: Spanish onions, intertwined slices of various bell peppers, rice and beans, and poblano peppers. Each component was expertly grilled for maximum flavor, and the vegetables had a snap that made for a happy and earthy contrast when everything was wrapped inside flour tortillas.
La Llorona seems to have already made its mark in Niantic as a destination that extends to fans beyond the village — and justifiably so. There are certainly creative elements at work that provide a progressive aspect to traditional cuisines, and the atmosphere and service similarly beckon.