Ah Riccardo and my dear sweet Lupe Taqueria. Situated right on Juniper Street in Midtown, I wanted so badly to enjoy your company, to appreciate your culinary statement, and your bubbling atmosphere. Alas, it was not to be. What you gave me was a failure of Titanic proportions. In the blink of an eye you went from a place with so much promise to a dark sea struggling to provide me with the life jacket I so desperately needed. The waters were murky, and that’s being more than generous.
Before I head on down this path of destruction, let us take a quick detour to clarify something for those of you who are not familiar with this blog. First impressions should be considered for what they are. It is absolutely impossible to consider a single meal, and particularly one that takes place inside of a restaurant’s IPO week, and proclaim the establishment a failure with any degree of certainty. However, certain elements of the meal can hint at what is to come.
I am often called to task for my propensity to hold an establishment’s feet to the fire no matter how long they are open. I’m particularly less forgiving in instances where the owner is an established restaurateur.
In that spirit, if people are willing to proclaim Antico as God’s gift to Atlanta’s pizza scene inside of one slice, then we have to be willing to consider all establishments against some reasonably similar criteria. Put it this way, for every Matt Ryan, there are many more Ryan Leafs. Unless some serious soul searching takes place, Lupe Taqueria will be headed to the dead pool faster than you can say “guacamole.”
A few months ago, proprietor Riccardo Ullio decided to axe Cuerno from his classroom lineup. The Spanish eatery was not working, perhaps in part because it just wasn’t that good. In Cuerno’s place, we now have Lupe, a Mexican restaurant that isn’t as far a stretch from it’s deceased predecessor as one might think. The kitchen is helmed by Darbelio Palma, a longtime Ullio employee and Mexican national.
Rumor has it that Ullio brought in a design team to rework the space. Though the space is quite nice for what it is, that appears to be a bit of an overstatement. Though my last visit to Cuerno was well before I started really paying attention to this stuff, I’m pretty sure the room is almost identical. The most notable alteration is the absence of the prodigious bull statue that dominated the restaurant’s entranceway. Though I may be incorrect, I’m nearly certain that the iron chairs with comfortable butt holders and the rather nice wood tables are holdovers.
Still, the L-shaped room gives off an intimate, yet lively vibe in the glow of the quasi-exposed kitchen. Dimly lit on the whole, the small bar that lines the back wall seems like a great place to sit and chat if that’s your thang. The high ceilings and head-to-toe windows seem to balance out the darkness as well as one could expect.
Though it’s always been a particularly dark space (which accounts for the lack of pictures here), and that in and of itself may be a deterrent for a number of wide-eyed diners, it’s nicely done and the vibe seems conducive to an enjoyable evening. The music during our one trip was Mexican flavored, but not kitschy or cheesy.
Walking in on this particular night, we found the room approximately half-full. A number of early-thirties daters were out and about as well as some more establish couples. Meanwhile, a vibrant group of young ladies took over a table and seemed to be in the throws of a very enjoyable evening.
Seated promptly, our server showed up within a minute or two in order to provide the love and attention you hope to get in an establishment such as this. She proceeded to set down a small but reasonable portion of tortilla chips and a cup of salsa and these gratis samplings were refilled with tactile precision.
This ample level of attention continued throughout the night. Though it was accompanied by a pleasant disposition, service was full of somewhat nagging shortcomings. Orders were mixed up, plates were dropped off at the wrong spots, glasses were left unfilled for quite a bit, and most importantly, key ingredients were left out. Whether the last point is truly the fault of the server is a inconsequential. When you order a side of fried onions and jalapeños, and there aren’t any jalapeños on the plate – you have a problem. Granted, this is a minor error … but with all the screw ups of the evening, this didn’t help their cause. Yes, we know it’s week one – but remember – Ullio runs three other establishments.
Anywho, the menu includes some hints of traditional Mexican fare that are done up in a way so as to not alienate the palates of your everyday American. The appetizer section includes a few familiar options including, but not limited to, guacamole, queso fundido con chorizo, and ceviche.
It just so happened that we tried all three of those on this particular evening. The guacamole sampler, one part pineapple and mint, one part mango and poblano, and one part traditional, was easily the best item of the night. Unfortunately, this is simply due to its absence of major faults. As guacamole goes, nothing much to write home about. The avocados were mashed so as to give these dips a creamed base. While that’s not necessarily my ideal choice, I can’t say I hated them. The mango/poblano had an odd flavor profile that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It probably had something to do with the spoiled poblanos they were using. While the mint and pineapple worked well with one and other – just not against the texture or the taste of the avocado based dip.
The vegetable ceviche was beyond bland and deserves no further comment. However, the imitation club crackers that came with it were a poor choice. Even from a visual perspective, it made the plating look cheap.
Last up in the appetizers section was the queso fundido. Served with a side of house made tortillas, an appropriately thick serving of cheese was infused with nice bits of chorizo. Unfortunately, the kick I was longing for was absent and in its stead, I was left with melted goodness against a resilient bite of Mexican ground pork. As it’s pretty hard to make bad queso fundido, they won’t win any awards for this. As mentioned, and as any good Mexican taqueria should, Lupe makes their tortillas onsite. Though they were as bland as the Yuma desert is dry, at least they are trying. I found using the tortilla chips to be the superior alternative as the flavor was a little more prevalent.
As passable as the apps were, the rest of the meal was downright disgusting. There’s no need to beat a meal to death, but let’s just cover a few notations before getting out of here.
You have roughly nine taco plates, three types of quesadillas, and five “platos” available to you. Almost all of them come with an accompaniment of rice and refried beans. Those sides tasted no better than Old El Paso’s finest can. It didn’t help that like everything else, the sides were cold and overcooked (how the hell do you pull that one off?).
The taco plates, which you can mix and match, come three to an order. I had the chance to choke down a Mixto taco. The ribeye was rubbery, the tortillas cold, the Chihuahua cheese non-discernable, and the rest of it just too confused and meek to make it anything other than a bad suggestion.
An order of the Costillas con Frijoles Negros (braised short ribs) also found its way onto my plate. You can call it braised, I call it “dumped into a bucket and then scooped onto the plate.” The beef was so over cooked that I had to gnaw at it just to get a bite. Meanwhile, the black beans held no flavor and I was left wondering what I was supposed to say about the dish.
Last, but most certainly not least, was the single worst Chile Relleno ever to find its way into my mouth. Though my initial bite went down, I can assure you it would have been hastily ejected from my jaws had I not been so concerned that anything else in my stomach might follow. In the brief moments it spent on my tongue and in my mouth, here’s what I got: Whatever batter/casing/or whatever the hell it was coating the pepper … it peeled off like a wet rag and tasted just about the same. The pepper itself was actually spicy, but obviously spoiled.
The incorporated queso de sincho, a Venezuelan cheese, was icktastic. To elaborate, it’s a white cheese and should be sweet to the tongue. SEE UPDATE The sampling I had tasted an awful lot like a Stilton. Stilton, which hails from ENGLAND, can be quite good if you don’t mind a blue cheese. In this case, the reminiscing made me think it was spoiled. Whatever it was – avoid at all cost until a much braver soul tries to down a bite.
The drinks deserve some positive attention, but I’m too worn out of this lambasting. I will say that I was pleased with the margaritas that I tried – all were heavy on the the liquor and showed the careful hand of a capable bartender.
For two taco plates, two entrées, and three appetizers, a food bill nearing $80 demands a much stronger performance. All in, we spent about $150 for four people … I’ll leave you to soak that in.
There is a difference between a first impression and a complete review. Does this one solitary meal mean that Lupe is doomed or even that this was par for the course? No. However, given the drastic similarities to its predecessor, the horribly poor sourcing of ingredients, the weak execution, AND the worst quality control I’ve seen in a restaurant of this caliber in a long time … well … the future doesn’t look so bright.
UPDATE & CORRECTION (10.26.09): At the time of our visit, the listed cheese for the poblano was sincho. This is not the same as queso cincho, and hopefully that typo on the menu is fixed. I should have been smart enough to realize the spelling error once I took a bite, but I straight up missed that. In any event, here’s the deal with queso cincho. The cheese is formed into large round molds and then pressed with a belt (cincho being belt in Spanish). It hails from the Southern area of Mexico. The parallels I drew to Stilton weren’t too far off. Cincho is an aged cheese with a pronounced flavor and a very strong “nose.” When melted, it maintains a soft, yet chewy texture and explodes with a pungent flavor. If you like blue cheese, this is all you – if you don’t, keep moving. If you expect the bite to be sweet and it comes back anything but – it means the menu needs to be re-typed.