- Walter Novak
- Don't look now: It's Corned Beef Nachos -- and it's out of this world.
When it comes to selecting which restaurants to visit, keeping an open mind is as important as an open gullet. Czech food? Sure. Indian? Why not. Thai? Bring it on. But then there's the occasional curveball. The most recent one came from Loco Leprechaun, a new, casual eatery in Westlake, where the concept seems to promise a tummy-turning mélange of Mexican and Irish flavors.
Owners Mike Ollick and Rose Wolfgram are part Irish, and they dig Mexican food, so they wanted a restaurant that served both. We've heard some slim premises in our day, but this one sounded downright anorexic. Too often, Irish grub is dull as dishwater, and Mexican eats are gringofied to the edge of extinction. Mix 'em together on one behemoth menu, and watch the disaster unfold.
And of course, we were completely wrong. Slightly silly, perhaps, but well crafted and often unique, the grub at this handsome tavern is much better than you'd have any right to expect. Loco's cheerful mishmash of nachos, wings, burgers, wraps, sandwiches, and salads is pulled off with surprising panache, thanks in large part to executive chef Mark Murray.
A 30-year vet of Cleveland kitchens, including the former Flats stalwart Fagan's, Murray tackles the menu -- which also includes rice bowls, fried turkey legs, and, inexplicably, chicken paprikash -- with equal skill, humor, and imagination.
Consider the signature Loco Nachos -- a ginormous tumble of crisp, tricolored tortilla chips, slathered with melted cheddar and jack, and finished with fruity homemade salsa. We added an optional topping of Murray's lean corned beef, thinly sliced and stacked up almost to the ceiling. It's not exactly a gourmet dish, but taken individually, each element was first rate; in combination, they made for a nosh both novel and almost irresistibly delish. (Portions, incidentally, are colossal: Take a big posse or a really big appetite.)
While joints that try to do too much often end up doing nothing very well, Murray and his cohorts mostly avoid that by balancing plenty of homemade offerings -- warm, crisp-edged potato chips, for instance, along with juicy salsas, freshly made dips, and the excellent, ubiquitous corned beef -- against several good-quality frozen products. Battered, boneless chicken "wings" (really more like nuggets) might have been a commercial item, but attentively deep-fried, doused with a tangy Buffalo hot sauce, and neatly stacked inside a miniature bucket on a well-drained bed of lettuce, they buddied up just fine to a Harp, Corona, or frosty draft of Dortmunder Gold ($4) from the large international beer list.
Not that every dish hit the bull's-eye. More ground beef and less rice would have improved a hefty burrito, for example. And while a half-pound Guacamole Burger was loaded with sliced avocado and mildly seasoned guac, it was also underdone, unevenly cooked, and lacking much in the way of beefy, grilled flavor.
But then there was that made-to-order mac and cheese: a vast, seductive landscape of firm mostaccioli, luxuriating beneath a non-oily mantle of melted jack and cheddar cheeses, then topped with an optional avalanche of thick, meaty, and brightly seasoned homemade chili. At least for the moment, this indecent indulgence earns the top spot for My Final Meal on Earth.
Of course, platters filled with cheese, spice, and deep-fried nice are what all the best tavern fare is made of. At Loco Leprechaun, though, the real surprise could be how well a health nut can dine. A diet-conscious gal-pal was in veggie heaven, chowing down on a serving of thick homemade hummus graced with hints of garlic, whispers of cumin, and tart little tickles of lemon, followed by an ample Four Seasons Salad: a prettily plated toss of field greens, blueberries, sliced strawberries, dried cranberries, and candied walnuts, all as fresh and perky as any in town. Other meat-free possibilities included organic brown rice topped with grilled veggies, cilantro-lime rice topped with salsa, and -- while definitely not health food -- crisp corn fritters served with real maple syrup.
Sadly, thanks to unpolished if well-intentioned service, we almost missed out on those first-course fritters; our unseasoned waitress forgot about the starters until about five minutes after she'd brought out our main events.
And speaking of unpolished: Approach the mixed drinks with caution. We weren't surprised that they seemed a little light on the booze -- that's becoming an everyday occurrence all over the region. The big problem was how poorly they were made. An "ultimate" mojito ($5.50) may have been the worst drink ever, with such a sugary surfeit of concentrated mint syrup that it tasted like a cross between medicine and spearmint gum. We sent it back, but its successor was identically awful. (Ollick promises he's working with his servers and bar staff to smooth out such rough patches.)
In any event, all this noshing, gnawing, and boozing takes place against a well-appointed backdrop that might well serve as a model for the contemporary Cleveland tavern, with acid-etched floors, a coppery tin ceiling, and a massive, ornate back bar that Ollick bought on eBay and then drove down to Virginia to retrieve.
Opposite the bar, shiny wooden tables are set with mosaic-glass votive holders, colorful dishware, and rolls of paper towels. And over the front door, two hand-lettered greetings spread their international message across the room. Céad mile faile! declares the one on the left. Ciento mil da la bienvenida! reads the other.
Regardless of the language, the welcome comes through loud and clear.