When I look at my Cleveland wishlist on UrbanSpoon, there seems to be a theme; all the restaurants are either owned by or recommended by Michael Symon. Ok, not all of them, but pretty darn close. But, that’s ok because following those recommendations has helped me find some good eats in Cleveland. So, on this trip, I dove back into the list and looked for the place that happened to be nearest to my hotel…that place was Lopez Southwestern Kitchen (Lopez Bar and Grill if you are looking it up on UrbanSpoon). Little did I know at the time, Lopez was where Rick Bayless (regarded as one of the top Mexican chefs in the country, and one of my personal favorites) got his start.
Lopez Southwestern Kitchen is located in the Cleveland Heights neighborhood which is a place that I had not been in before. Driving through, it definitely felt a little different than you usually think about Cleveland; it was a nice urban neighborhood with places like Whole Foods, Crate and Barrel and the like. The restaurant was located off the main drag by about a couple blocks in a quiet neighborhood. The outside was brightly lit and done up in orange and blue stucco that had a very Southwestern feel to it. Inside, I made my way to the long bar off to the right of the entrance, and started my evening off with a margarita.
The first course of the evening had to be the dish that brought me in the door; the iron chef guac. As if a freshly made, traditional guacamole with avocado, onion and a hint of lime is not enough, the fine folks at Lopez added bacon, bleu cheese, and sage. Even with the richness of the avocado and bacon, the dish worked very nicely with that sort of tang from the bleu cheese. The creaminess of everything was offset just a touch by the bacon giving it a nice textural balance as well. But the biggest surprise came in the wonderfully bright and acidic flavors of the pickled vegetables that accompanied it and almost served to bring a fresh counter to each bite of the guac.
Through sheer willpower alone I managed to stop myself halfway through to make sure I had room for the Mezcal chicken that was on the way. I was warned when I ordered it that it was smoked (apparently there are people that don’t like this?) and I could smell the smokiness when it hit the table. If my mouth wasn’t already watering from the guac, it would have started at this point. I cut into the thigh of the half chicken and took a bite of the moist and flavorful and smokey meat. It was absolutely wonderfully cooked. That was followed by a bite of the corn pudding and the various sauces on the plate that was just an explosion in my mouth. There was a sweetness from the red pepper marmalade and the creaminess of the corn with the texture of the pudding. Everything worked so well together that I just had to take another bite before moving on to the breast. It was here though that I had my first pause…the bite was flavorful, but a bit dry. I was a little surprised given how everything had been up until that point. The good news though was as I kept working inward toward the wing, the moistness returned. Ultimately there was just a little bit on the outside that was thinner and overcooked just a touch.
At the end, not only did I not have room for dessert, I left a fairly substantial amount of food behind. Fortunately I was able to box it up so I would have lunch for later in the week. And I can tell you that later in the week, it was just as good as the day I had it. I walked out feeling very full and very happy. The meal was quite excellent, and it’s easy to see how this is one of (if not the) top Mexican restaurant in Cleveland, and is a place that I hope to have the opportunity to revisit a few more times.
Final Verdict – 4.25 Stars