North of the border
Sacramento, CA 95814
Stepping into Zócalo is both like and unlike stepping into a zócalo. On the one hand, there’s lovely art from Mexico and a sense of grandeur, along with objects from Day of the Dead papier-mâché skeletons to hammered silver water pitchers. There’s also a lively social scene and big TVs (regrettably de rigueur in Sacramento restaurants), just as I saw in many restaurants on the zócalo in Oaxaca.
On the other hand, in Mexico, the TVs showed soccer, not the NFL, and none sported bizarrely grand hobnailed leather frames. Also missing here was the sense of history. Zócalo’s space—built as an auto dealership in 1925—may be old by California standards, but it lacks the lived-in feel of Mexico’s great public spaces. Sometimes that’s good: I’m pleased to report that the bathrooms, while attractively appointed in a south-of-the-border style, are otherwise quite inauthentic.
We settled into a cushy booth to find that it might be too cushy: Sinking into the low seats made me feel like a kid with my chin in the cornflakes. (Plus, I could look up into that skeleton and see the Styrofoam form in the skull.) When our guacamole arrived—suspended over a molcajete (the stone mortar used for grinding ingredients in Mexican cooking) in a silver tiered dish—we couldn’t even see it.
I didn’t like the guacamole much anyway; it had a slight sliminess and could have tasted fresher. The better appetizer was sopes: three round boats of doughy masa filled with, respectively, flavorful black beans, chicken with a sweetish mole, and tangy shredded-cabbage salad. Alternatively, stick with the copious warm chips and the trio of salsas: tangy, creamy green (the best of the three); smoky brick-red; and chunky pico de gallo. (You might not find chips on the table in Mexico, but riots would doubtless ensue if a Mexican restaurant in the United States failed to offer them.) Because the chips and salsa are free, and the inferior guacamole costs $7.50, you should save your pennies.
You’ll need them if you want a drink. The basic margarita (with sour mix, as has been reported in these pages) costs $7. To get fresh lime juice and fancier tequila—even though very few people can appreciate the nuances of high-end tequila in a mixed drink—you’ll pay $4 more, which seems like highway robbery. We tried to order the fancy margarita, but the server must have misunderstood, because we ended up with the ho-hum sour-mix version. The price tag may be justified by sheer size: The margarita was served on the rocks in great big water glasses. Be warned: If you like to have “just one drink” with your meal, this monster may not be the cocktail for you.
Large portions ruled everywhere. The arrachera (marinated, grilled skirt steak) with rajas (strips of roasted chilies) featured 14 ounces of tender, tangy meat. The few rajas were a bit hard to find amid the enormous pile of beef.
The tacos de cazuela were smaller but richer, a thick and saucy mixture of chicken or beef with chorizo and mushrooms, topped with melty cheese for layering in corn tortillas. I picked chicken and was surprised to find that the pieces were firm little strips with grill marks.
These discrete grilled chicken bits raised my suspicions that the kitchen is cutting the odd corner with multipurpose prepped ingredients. I didn’t try the salads (they all seem to be portioned as main dishes), but several were listed on the menu as containing grilled chicken, including a chicken Caesar. (Of the latter, the menu brags, “Invented in Tijuana. Perfected at Zócalo.” Pardon me for pointing out that chicken is an ersatz latter-day addition to the Caesar salad, gesturing more to the fresh-Mex aesthetic than to classic México.) Even though I found the grilled chicken a little tough in both texture and concept, I liked the chorizo-infused sauce, though the latter made it hard to construct tacos that didn’t drip everywhere.
I never got a chance to have any churros while I was in Mexico, so I determined to have them here. Served in a heavy oversized martini glass, they were crunchy with cinnamon-sugar on the outside, with a little gooey-sweet custard inside. Despite the menu’s claim that the ice cream alongside was “fruit-infused”—I couldn’t detect any flavor but plain vanilla—they were perfect with the hot churros.
Dessert was a sweet final note, but I left feeling that Zócalo—despite its gorgeous looks—is less “a taste of México,” as its motto claims, than a reinterpretation for American tastes. There’s nothing really wrong with that, and most of the food tastes pretty good. In the end, it’s a little like that papier-mâché skeleton. If you look closely, the artificiality might show, but the overall effect is pleasing enough.