Fruit of the vine
It’s actually a bit confusing when you walk in. Opposite the door are a cash register and a small bar area, including a raw bar heaped with ice and seaweed and topped with pristine-looking oysters. It’s unclear whether the few tables (there are only about 20 seats) are open for seating yourself.
The unusual layout is intentional. A statement from the owners, which comes with the bill, notes that they wanted the space to feel like an extension of a family room, and that it was “built to absolutely not resemble a restaurant.”
Luckily, a friendly server greeted us immediately, asked if we’d visited before and explained the procedure. Plated versions of the day’s menu offerings are on display in a case by the counter, and you can grab a menu as you sit down for table service. Although the case lets you see what you’re ordering, I’m not sure that it doesn’t do the food a slight disservice. The food at Tucos is not made ahead of time, and the plates in the case can’t help but look less fresh and delicious than the real thing.
The food really is wonderful: simple yet sophisticated, with bright flavors and a creative edge. There’s everything from a casual Cuban sandwich to upscale items like a savory wild-mushroom pudding, all at affordable prices. The most affordable choice of all, in the evenings, is a four-course menu for just $25. The night we were there, it featured a cumin-scented Cuban black-bean soup, tartly dressed and smoky wilted greens with a poached egg, a choice of butternut-squash gnocchi or roasted pork shoulder, and double-chocolate pudding. My husband ordered it, and it was about the best bargain we’d ever seen at a restaurant—the more so because the chef throws in an extra course, which, on the night we were there, was toast topped with chèvre cheese and wild mushrooms.
Meanwhile, I ordered two courses, an artichoke-and-potato salad and a small plate of minted lamb meatballs, richly spicy and surrounded by a nubbly romesco sauce. The salad—with long stems of perfectly trimmed artichokes neatly crisscrossed and mealy, buttery, roasted potato halves topped with a lemony aioli—was a standout. Its careful composition and beautifully precise flavors made what could have been a humble dish sing.
Both of my choices were rich, and I topped them off with a little Meyer-lemon cheesecake for dessert. This was a creamy, tangy round on a crumbly shortbread crust with a candied lemon slice alongside. My husband had his chocolate pudding—a deep, dark sweet like a pot de crème. He also ordered the flight of dessert wines, which included an Australian aged muscat and a tawny port, as well as a Sauternes and a nectar-like Canadian ice wine. The former two went well with the chocolate; the latter two with the tangy cheesecake.
The flights arrived in style, with each wine in a little cylindrical vessel like a tall, thin shot glass, all lined up in an oblong basket—an elegant solution to the problem of handing out four unwieldy wineglasses, each with a little pour. The visual appeal may be part of the reason we saw tables all around us sharing flights over oysters and other snacks. People were there for everything from a sip and a snack to the full-scale dinner.
The wine bar’s multifunctionality may be both a strength and a weakness, however. One of the few flaws of Tucos is slow service, which is not surprising given how many kinds of customers the tiny kitchen is trying to juggle. The servers try hard, though, and their graciousness about any holdups helps. We overheard a loudmouth who had ordered the four-course meal (and whose companions each had ordered a single small plate) complaining bitterly and loudly enough for the whole room to hear that his dinner was taking forever. (He was awaiting his fourth course, and it had not been long since the previous course and his friends’ plates had been cleared.) The server pleasantly comped his whole meal, which shows the lengths to which Tucos will go to ensure that guests feel comfortable enough to come in and stay awhile.
I hope nobody will take that story as a cue to go to Tucos and make a totally unwarranted fuss in the hopes of getting a free meal, because the people who run this lovely little spot don’t deserve to be taken advantage of. Instead, go and order a glass of wine, a small plate or some oysters and enjoy this tiny cafe’s considerable pleasures.