Mariachi Nights 

Food Review: Lalo’s Cocina Bar & Grill takes over the old Julian’s space with great service and Mexican classics.

click to enlarge Lalo’s Cocina Bar & Grill’s fried tilapia tacos are filled with pico de gallo and chipotle sauce.

Scott Elmquist

Lalo’s Cocina Bar & Grill’s fried tilapia tacos are filled with pico de gallo and chipotle sauce.

November’s debut of Lalo’s Cocina Bar & Grill evoked the kind of eye-blinking wonder worthy of a David Copperfield illusion. One day, the cavernous remodel of the old Julian’s was doing business as Pane e Vino. Seemingly overnight, it became Lalo’s.

Named after owner Eduardo “Lalo” Macia, the recent addition to Broad Street aims to up Richmond’s Tex-Mex game with quality ingredients and mindful service. The gregarious Macia was born in California but also lived in Guadalajara, Mexico, and brings elements of both cuisines to his latest endeavor.

It’s a huge space that puts a massive bar in the center of the room, the better to dispense margaritas including the classic with house tequila, the pricey Lalo’s Patron margarita and what’s known as a drunk margarita. Ten Mexican bottled beers comingle with the usual bottled suspects, along with six drafts, including locally omnipresent Legend and Hardywood. Wine skews Italian, perhaps a holdover from the previous tenant.

Surrounding the bar are tables, but the draw will be booths generous enough to afford diners both comfort and privacy, with Latin music making for a lively soundtrack. At a recent happy hour, a mariachi band keeps spirits as high as a good tequila buzz.

Servers present themselves quickly, proffering baskets of chips and house-made salsa set off with mucho garlic. The extensive menu is all about the familiar, a roll call of Tex-Mex standards. Luck is with us when, after ordering tableside guacamole ($8.49), our server apologizes for a delay and Lalo himself shows up. With a deft hand and nonstop stream of patter, he chops and blends, inquiring about our taste in cilantro and jalapeños to ensure the standard suits us perfectly. We leave not a lick behind.

Camarones fundidos ($8.49) entertain the tongue with grilled shrimp cooked with fleshy onions and sweet pineapple under a blanket of Monterey Jack cheese, a winning, sizzling start to another meal. Meat lovers should try nachos chorizo ($7.99), a dish where the protein, not the peppers, provides the heat. Our server doesn’t even roll his eyes when I ask for black beans added to mine.

For those who let carnitas ($10.99) determine the measure of a Tex-Mex kitchen, you’ll find it’s tough not to make a habit of Lalo’s cumin, chili and garlic-infused pork. Not so the quesadilla Jalisco ($10.79), a bland bore of steak, spinach and mushrooms with no discernible flavor beyond onions. Chicken avocado salad ($8.99) lightens eating options with slices of creamy avocado and well-seasoned grilled breast meat splayed across a bed of black beans, cucumbers and greens.

At lunch, chilaquiles ($6.49) spark with salsa verde and are partnered on the plate with Spanish rice and refried beans. Ordering enchiladas Michuaca ($6) gets me a much-needed pronunciation lesson. But alas, the beef enchilada in cheese sauce and chicken enchilada under green sauce are best ordered by those seeking something uninspired.

It takes only three visits before I remember to save room to get a crack at the dessert menu, featuring staples such as flan, churros, fried ice cream and chocolate chimichangas. Sopapillas ($4.99) arrive dusted in cinnamon sugar with a scoop of ice cream under a tuft of whipped cream, more than sweet enough to punctuate the preceding series of savory plates.

Like so many Mexican restaurants, service is fast, too much so when you’d like to spend some time with the menu or linger over a drink before ordering. Letting our server know we intend to stay put for a while frees her to do other things until we send up smoke signals to order another course, a request she accepts graciously.

Another time, our decision to have a slow-moving meal nets us a treat from the kitchen: tiny ramekins of menudo, the traditional soup served at Mexican celebrations, and known for its restorative powers for a hangover. The labor-intensive, long-simmering red-chili-pepper-based soup was just about ready to go on the menu and a few fortunate customers got a preview taste.

Lalo’s may not set hearts aflutter for those who’ve lived closer to the border. But in typical Mexican style, portions are generous, and corn options abound for the gluten-intolerant as do meatless ones for vegetarians. Occasional culinary misfires aside, endearing service and Jacuzzi-sized booths will speak to Richmonders. S

Lalo’s Cocina Bar & Grill
2617 W. Broad St.
Sundays-Thursdays 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m.-11 p.m.

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