April 28, 2013

Dine Out Maine: New restaurant makes splash with interesting spices, dishes

By NANCY HEISER

A cavernous space in a small strip mall on Route 1 in Falmouth that was once home to O'Naturals is now Bueno Loco, which literally means "Good Crazy." Or, as the website says, "Crazy good."

click image to enlarge

Bueno Loco has taken over the space in a Route 1 strip mall in Falmouth that was once home to O'Naturals. It now has a prominent bar and features colors of lime, orange and yellow.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

BUENO LOCO

240 Route 1, Falmouth

619-7057; buenoloco.net

•••1/2

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday

CREDIT CARDS: All major

PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $7 to $14; Mexican classics and entrees, $11 to $24

VEGETARIAN: Vegetarians, vegans and the gluten-averse will find much to like. It's all labeled on the colorful menu.

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes, plenty of choices

KIDS: Yes, separate menu

RESERVATIONS: For five or more only

BAR: Nice cocktail list with drinks that use infused tequilas made in-house. Five beer taps include Mexican and local choices. Small wine list includes Chilean, Argentinian and Spanish.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Bueno Loco serves fresh, high-quality Mexican fare with an emphasis on food with Mayan and/or Yucatan influences in a chic, casual atmosphere. Many dishes are intriguingly spiced and have a slightly sweet touch. The ambitious kitchen offers 10 different homemade salsas. Drinks and desserts are winners too. Vegan-friendly.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value:

• Poor 

•• Fair 

••• Good

•••• Excellent

••••• Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

The new restaurant's renovation is attractive and cheerful. The long open kitchen and the wavy counter from the natural foods cafeteria days are still here, as are the high ceilings. But a bar is now prominent. The former blond wood colors are lime, orange and yellow, and a smaller dining room at the back breaks up the long space.

It may seem odd to have a Russian chef, Oleg Opalnyk, cooking Mayan Mexican, but he sure knows his way around a kitchen. The Culinary Institute of America graduate learned this cuisine during extended stays in Guatemala, Belize and the Yucatan.

The bartender is on his game too. Two drinks -- a mint-strong mojito with a fine balance of lime and a payaya/mango/pineapple margarita ($8) -- kicked off the evening nicely, and set the tone. Much of the food here is fresh, fruity and clean. The eatery has a few standard tacos and burritos, but it avoids Tex-Mex approximations from steam tables.

Instead, you'll find food with Yucatan roots such as pork, turkey or duck pibil -- a Mayan word meaning "buried"; it's a cooking technique that involves wrapping in banana leaves, marinating in citrus and a peppery red sauce, then slow cooking. The result resembles pulled meat.

Interesting spice mixes containing cinnamon, cloves, allspice and cumin, among others, are Mayan-influenced. The cuisine is big in grilled fruits and vegetables, and honey is a common ingredient.

There's a light sweetness to several dishes here, including the house salad -- a romaine base with avocado, tomato, cucumber, cilantro, radish, pumpkin seeds and pickled red onion with a warm, honey vinaigrette ($7). Of the 10 homemade salsas, three involve fruit.

Panuchos may be emerging as a trend, a south-of-the-border answer to small plates. At Bueno Loco, the delicious vegetarian variety ($14 for an entree-sized appetizer) comprises three snack-sized tostitas, each filled with a variant on a bean-and-veggie theme: Sweet potato, spinach and seitan (a soy-based protein), with salsa, avocado cilantro and a tiny dab of goat cheese on top. (I could have used more of this creamy finish.)

Among the 20 spices in the flank steak marinade, we could identify clove and cinnamon; of the rest, we remained blissfully ignorant. The grilled meat -- substantial, fibrous and served with a smoked chili tomato sauce, grilled vegetables and tortillas -- had a welcome and unusual flavor without a palate-numbing heat ($22).

Chiapas pork, presumably named for that southern region of Mexico, wore a taut, red-brown (paprika-based) coat over moist tenderloin. This excellent centerpiece came with a serrano pepper sauce, mole and chaya mashed sweet potato ($19).

Cubes of sweet cornbread with onion served with hot salsa and olive oil for dipping were perfectly crumbly and softly textured, a nice mix of sweet and hot.

Except for the banana leaf wrapping that gave it visual interest, the wild salmon with bell peppers was too plain -- our only food complaint of the evening ($24).

Ceviche salad with a lime cilantro marinade was delightfully fruity, but after a few moments forking around a little among the jicama, mango and camouflaging papaya for the fish (it was supposed to be wild salmon-based), we realized we had been served the fruit ceviche by mistake ($9). This left one diner without a protein for the evening, but nevertheless this substitute, with a lime and cilantro marinade, was delicious.

House-made desserts were creative, multifaceted plates with mixed textures and creative complementary flavors.

Excellent light and crispy churros came with a scoop of sweet potato ice cream, spiced similarly to a pumpkin pie, and a chocolate dipping sauce. A delicate flan came topped with chunky, house-made papaya chutney and a crunchy almond shortbread cookie that melted away with each bite -- superb accents to a respectable centerpiece. (Both desserts cost $7.)

The distinct textures, colors and flavors of the food are turning heads at this restaurant, which has been open since early February. We experienced service that was friendly but had a few missteps.

This included not only the mistaken ceviche, but also a hiccup at the finale. The restaurant's lovely, rich Mayan coffee -- its Wicked Joe's brewed with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice -- was tepid. (It was made at 5 p.m. said our server, unprompted; it was now 7:30. Maybe there's a way to correct this?) In short, the front of the house did not flow with ease on the night we visited.

When these minor kinks iron out, this spot may merit another half star. Even now, it is drawing plenty of customers to its "crazy good" dishes.

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at:

nancyheiser.com

 

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