1280 S. 300 West, Salt Lake City ; 801-466-4594
Comforting chiles rellenos and exquisite flan show there's potential in a kitchen that currently puts out basic Mexican fare.
Hours: M-S, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Corkage: $ 0
Reservations: Not accepted/necessary
Recommended Dishes: Chile relleno, Mojarra frita (whole fried fish), flan.
Sept. 21, 2011
Nacho’s Libre has the style, now the eatery needs to find the heat
By Lesli J. Neilson
If you’ve found yourself waiting for a green light at the intersection of 1300 South and 300 West, perhaps you’ve seen him standing on the corner drumming up business in front of the shockingly pink Nacho’s Libre restaurant. The restaurant employee is dressed as a luchador, or Mexican wrestler, with a red and turquoise mask and red cape — just like Jack Black’s character in the 2006 film “Nacho Libre.”
By day, Black’s character is an average monastery cook with no quality ingredients to cook with. By night, Nacho dons his luchador costume to fulfill his dream of being a successful wrestler … and earning enough money for better food to feed the monastery’s orphans.
In real life, the man behind this year-old restaurant is owner Ignacio (Nacho) Cambray, whose Mexican heritage is Acapulcan, a city whose cuisine involves fresh seafood and moles. (Acapulco is in the state of Guerrero, which is adjacent to the states of mole-centric Puebla and Oaxaca.)
Nacho’s menu offers seafood and mole dishes, as well as more common selections such as enchiladas, burritos and tortas (sandwiches). While I found the service and décor to be notable, only a few menu items are worthy of praise. The problem is that most of the dishes seem to be simplified for American palates and lack any complex flavors or heat. It’s as if Nacho is playing it safe.
Both the chile relleno ($6.99), packed with molten cheese, battered and deep-fried, then covered in red sauce, and the triangle of caramelly, jiggly flan ($3.99) were what convinced me to review Nacho’s in the first place. (It also didn’t hurt that there are frosty mugs for their six available beers.)
Another memorable dish is the Mojarra frita ($10.99), in which a whole tilapia is scored, deep-fried and served alongside rice, refried beans and salad. Be sure to eat the fins — they’re as crunchy as the tortilla chips and better for you.
Other fish offerings need some adjustments to be good. Namely, the ceviche acapulco ($10.99) with firm tilapia, shrimp and langoustines, needs more oomph from lime. Shrimp tacos ($11.99) and fish tacos ($10.99) were bland, fishy and uninteresting.
More seasoning would punch up many of the meat dishes, too. A variety of dishes needed salt or heat, or both, including the slow-cooked beef known as barbacoa, ($12.99); the chile verde burrito ($7.99; $8.99); cocinita pibil, which is slow-roasted, shredded pork marinated in citrus juices, ($12.99); and mole poblano ($14.99), made with peanuts, walnuts, raisins, bananas, Mexican chocolate, sesame seeds and guajillo and ancho chiles. Other moles include Coloradito, verde, Oaxaqueño and ranchero.
A chicken-filled, deep-fried chimichanga cloaked in mild green sauce ($7.99; $8.99) sat too long before being delivered and arrived soggy. The masa surrounding the chicken in a tamale was dense and forgettable. Nachos ($5.99) and hot wings ($6.99) were carbon copies of pub grub available at any bar.
To attract business, the restaurant offers a “value menu” ($4.99) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., lunch specials ($6.99), and an “early-bird special” ($11.99) from 3 to 6 p.m. — and it delivers (for a small fee). A concise kids’ menu includes a cheese quesadilla, bean and cheese burrito, spaghetti, chimichanga or carne asada burrito, along with a drink and ice cream, for $4.99.
The lack of clientele is a shame, because Cambray is one of the nicest restaurateurs you’ll ever meet. His staff is as efficient and accommodating, and the restaurant itself is decked out with Nacho Libre posters on the walls.
The Mexican poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Octavio Paz once said, “Deserve your dream.” Nacho Libre did it. Now it’s up to Nacho Cambray to stop playing it safe and do it as well.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.