A few months ago, the mere thought of another Southwestern restaurant had me howling like a rabid coyote. But that was before I visited the Zolo Grill, now the clear ruler of this peculiar patch of the culinary world.

Southwestern food covers a lot of territory--its evolution includes contributions from Mexican, Hispanic, Native American, Tex-Mex and Southern (including New Orleans) cooking styles and ingredients, but its interpretation can be a completely personal thing. When a mediocre cook is in the kitchen, that means more shrimp fajitas. But Zolo is in the hands of Dave Query--and those are very competent hands.

Query, former owner of Q's in the Hotel Boulderado as well as the Lickskillet in Gold Hill (and onetime executive chef at Cliff Young's), left Colorado a few years ago to return to his native Michigan. But he and his wife, Amy, missed the area so much that they came back, bringing with them the notion of opening an affordable restaurant in Boulder that would also meet the community's demand for quality. Or, as Zolo general manager (and former Boulderado employee) Tim Harris puts it, Boulder has been hurting for more places for "middle-class Boulderites."

Well, either the number of middle-class Boulderites has increased or wealthier inhabitants are sneaking in, because Zolo is packed even on weeknights. Although the food is the major draw, the surroundings are nothing to sneeze at. The Querys, who did the decorating themselves, managed to avoid the overdone Southwestern trappings, opting instead for understated casualness, a comfortable, soothing color scheme, an airy patio shielded by trees and a cool squiggly thing for a logo. Their attention to detail spills over into the service (the waitstaff is commendably perky, considering how taxed it is by the constant flow of customers), a wine list that doesn't try to make up for the low prices and a menu that fits the toned-down but classy atmosphere.

Query spent quite a bit of time traveling throughout the Southwest on a food fact-finding mission, and the result is New Mexico-glancing-over-at-California cuisine that concentrates on sensible but innovative combinations...and is blessedly light on cilantro.

For example, although the blue-corn chile relleno is now a contemporary classic--Sante Fe's infamous Coyote Cafe has been serving its version for eight or nine years--Query's model ($5.95) featured a poblano chile instead of an Anaheim (a side of tomato-based "ranchero" sauce cooled down the fiery pepper). In a further variation on the theme, the chile had been stuffed with soft black beans and goat cheese for a richer effect, then dusted with blue cornmeal before frying. The summer gazpacho ($1.95), a garlicky concoction of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, came with a crouton that had been slathered with more smashed-up, spicy black beans. Even the combination of corn with jalapenos and smoked chicken in a pungent soup ($1.95)--I know, it's been done before--was a standout: Its thick consistency was perfect, as was the balance between hot peppers and cooling corn.

But where Zolo really won our hearts--and stomachs--was with its "mashed-to-order" guacamole ($4.75), which proved that it's possible for a kitchen to do the right thing and do it quickly. Zolo barely touched the avocado, mashing it only enough to add just the right amount of lime, chile powder and garlic (lots of garlic). The blue-corn, red-chile and plain tortilla chips on the side were fryer-fresh, crisp and slightly salty. And even though that evil herb, cilantro, made an appearance, it had been chopped loosely and piled on top of the guac, making for easy removal.

There was nothing I wanted to remove from the house salad ($3.95). A standard mix of greens, it was elevated to greatness by a red-bell-pepper-and-balsamic-vinegar dressing that bounced off the goat cheese crumbled on top. Although the kitchen will substitute blue cheese for the goat, this cheese was incredibly tasty and so fresh it still had a somewhat wet texture.

Things just got better with our entrees. The combination plate of tacos ($7.75) brought one corn tortilla shell stuffed with delicious fat slices of duck that had been barbecued in a red-chile-infused sauce and another filled with barbecued eggplant that had been roasted with tons of garlic for an intense flavor treat. On the side came fresh greens and diced tomatoes, "ranchero" cheese and fairly standard black beans and rice.

The catfish po-boy ($7.75), one of five sandwiches Zolo offers for dinner, featured fish that had been ever-so-slightly breaded with toasted breadcrumbs, then fried and stuck between two thick pieces of bread. The excellent embellishments included a green chile remoulade that served as a fresh, potent tartar sauce and a pile of caramelized onions we had a tough time relegating to the sandwich, they were so good plain. The accompanying coleslaw was pleasantly mild on the mayo and heavy on the vinegar, and a mound of roasted tomatoes rounded out a flavorful and filling entree.

The special we sampled, green-lip mussels ($12.95), offered further proof of Zolo's mastery of taste combinations. A dozen mussels ringed a shallow bowl filled to the brim with a tomato broth crammed with herbs, corn, summer squash and potatoes; the mussels injected just enough seafood essence into the mix, and the vegetables soaked up all the intense seasonings. The fish stew that resulted was a truly remarkable dish.

Zolo's desserts added bonus points to an already winning meal. The three we inhaled were so good that only our stuffed stomachs kept us from ordering another round. As it was, we fought for the last bite of the best.

The grilled banana cream pie ($4.50) was certainly a contender. Pastry chef Phyllis Mendleson had sandwiched grilled, caramelized bananas and a thick cream spiked with rum and white chocolate between a ginger cookie crust and fresh whipped cream, hot fudge and caramel sauces--good lord. On top sat a probably unnecessary flavor-booster of toasted coconut and slivered almonds. Then there was the brownie truffle bar ($4.25), a dense brownie heavy with espresso and slathered with a thick layer of chocolate, fresh whipped cream and caramel sauce, augmented by definitely unnecessary wedges of peanut brittle and more chocolate (but we forced ourselves to eat them anyway).

The winner, though, after much debate, turned out to be the satin crunch cake ($4.50). The centerpiece of this ecstasy was a mocha-tinged white-chocolate mousse, but the truly stellar components were the hazelnut crust and ganache. We barely touched the chocolate sauce surrounding the enormous piece--not because it wasn't good, but because we were too busy cramming our faces to spoon it up.

So let Boulder's middle class eat cake. If it's at Zolo, I'll be the first in line.


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