I was sitting in the dining room at Milagro Taco Bar scratching hieroglyphs into the mole with my fork: hearts and squiggles, my initials. It was a good mole -- dark and glossy, thickened enough to stick, with a flavor like coffee beans and charcoal and bitter chocolate and fire. When wine snobs talk about the great old reds, they use language like that; they sniff, swirl, say, "Hmm...oak and cherries, chocolate and tobacco." And I roll my eyes, because wine is wine -- just chemistry and patience. But good mole? That's damn close to magic.
And I was savoring this one because it was one of the few successes I'd found at Milagro over five months of visits. I'd been disappointed by shrimp, by sauces, by the poblano-and-cheese empanadas that were nothing I couldn't get for free on any Bennigan's "Fiesta Friday" bar menu with my mucho macho margarita. The achiote pork tenderloin was good, but easily shown up by the sweet-potato enchilada. And the lobster tostadas I hated like poison: thirteen dollars for two little lobster tartlets set on a plate so busy it looked like a can of corn exploded across a white-on-white Jackson Pollock canvas. There was a thick chive crema, corn, onions, some infused oil, then the tostadas themselves -- puff pastry going sticky and soft in the mess, the chunks of lobster buried beneath a fall of wedded ingredients so flavorless I figured the lobster must have come in frozen. And that was just plain wrong, because Milagro is one of Frank Bonanno's restaurants, and lobster is one of Bonanno's signatures. Lobster mac and cheese at Mizuna, lobster fra diavola at Luca d'Italia -- I've had a love affair with Frank's lobster dishes since forever, but this tostada wasn't deserving of anyone's affections.
The mole was a marvel, though. It was fresh and deep with balanced flavors, and lovely even to look at, so I clung to it like a codex, a key to explaining how Milagro had lost me and where it had gone wrong.
Milagro Taco Bar
1700 Vine Street, 303-399-1700. Hours: Open daily at 4 p.m.
Shrimp cocktail: $6.50
Lobster tostada: $13
Tortilla soup: $5
Taco plate: $8
Enchilada plate: $7.50
BBQ salmon: $16
Pork tenderloin: $17
Chicken mole: $13
Six months ago, I couldn't wait for the place to open. I was on the phone with Bonanno a lot, listening to him talk it up, frantically scratching notes as he told me how this new venture was going to be like another El Taco de México, a 17th Avenue version of the landmark taco stand and lunch counter that I love like an adopted mother. Tacos and beef cheeks and menudo on Saturdays, little girls in their church dresses, cheap eats and getting screwed by the counter help for not speaking Spanish -- these were archetypal El Taco experiences, and Bonanno knew and understood them as well as I did. He loved El Taco like I did. And he told me he wanted a restaurant just like that. Only better, of course. Because this was Frank Bonanno talking, and the man has never seen anything done by anyone that he hasn't figured out he can do better, cleaner, nearer to perfect -- if only by a degree. And most of the time, he's right
But not this time.
I first went to Milagro when it opened back in May, and I was horrified -- not by the food, which was decent if not earthshaking, but by the menu itself. Lobster and pork medallions and white plates sketched with foodie-bait sauces. A list of appetizers that seemed to go on forever. A coctel de camarones that was all zing and flash and served in a martini glass, I think -- but if it wasn't, it might as well have been. This place was about as far from El Taco de México as you could possibly get while still staying within shouting distance of traditional Mexican cuisine. El Taco de Burbank, maybe. El Taco de White Plains.
And the prices? Four people who were not drinking heavily laid down $120. I was so pissed I didn't go back for two months. And when I did, I got pissed off all over again.
The problem was never the room. It's comfortably rustic, done in spongy earth-tone yellows and golds, with tall booths along the walls, bare tables spotting the floor, a good bar in the back. The music is mostly anachronistic blues and the service exactly what you'd expect in these surroundings -- young, easily confused, mostly competent in a casual, neighborhoody kind of way. On a recent Saturday night, I watched Bonanno's majority partner, Mark Haber, conducting service from the bar, working his troops like Patton without the sunglasses and with a wine glass in place of the swagger stick. The house did 110 covers on a Wednesday not too long ago, and I know owners who would sell their souls for numbers like that. Some who doubtless have. And as I lingered over my mole on a Sunday at 8:30 p.m., I was far from the only guy in the house.
But five months, four menu revisions (with another one coming) and three chefs (the kitchen is now under the command of Alberto Zubios, a veteran cook with three years at Mizuna already behind him) from opening day, Milagro is still not right. The vibe of the place is so gringo-local that it would fit right in on any street corner in Anytown, USA. Every meal has made me wonder exactly what kind of weird turn I would have to take, what alley I would have to go down in the American quarter of Juarez or Tijuana or Ensenada, to find a place as conflicted as Milagro. It's as though there are two different restaurants here, both of them fighting for dominance in a split personality, neither of them winning.
On the one hand, there was that awful lobster tostada; the shrimp cocktail; steamed mussels in white wine and adobo, bitter with boiled cilantro; unconscionably overwrought sauces; and a noticeable lack of anything on the menu like menudo or beef cheeks, chicharrones or even tamales -- cornerstones of traditional, low-rent Mexican cuisine. But on the other, I'd just eaten a wonderful filet of salmon, dosed with a chipotle barbecue sauce ideally balanced between sweet and smoky that seemed so perfectly devoted to its attendant fish that its creation could only have been an act of pure, obsessive love. The fish came mounted over sour-cream-and-chive potato salad -- a bizarre and perfect combination, the acidity knifing through the oily texture of the fish, the sting of the barbecue.
Milagro's menu has been pared to a single, uncrowded page at this point, with Bonanno killing plates like they said something nasty about his mother. The bulk of it is now taken up by the platillos ligeros. These taco-bar offerings include enchiladas dressed in a carefully constructed red sauce that highlighted the smoke of chiles en adobo and reminded me of the red chile I had with everything when I first moved to New Mexico, right down to the weird background sweetness that was like a reward for withstanding the heat. The stewed-chicken tacos were surprisingly good, topped with shredded romaine in place of the traditional cabbage. But the grilled-shrimp tacos were terrible one night -- the meat tasteless and rubbery and abused by the grillman, the corn tortillas soggy -- and just passable a few weeks later. At this rate, they should be right by this time next year.
The tortilla soup I tried on my last visit, though, was already perfect -- a silky purée of fried tortillas and chicken stock, garlic, onions, a hint of tomato so light it didn't change the soup's lovely nut-brown color, and a lace of huitlacoche (Mexico's answer to truffles, which are Bonanno's answer to everything) that gave every other ingredient a solid base to stand on. All told, there were six ingredients, each of them absolutely necessary and working in pure harmony, with nothing extraneous, nothing tacked on. This soup, finally, tasted of the respect and tradition and balance and smart design that I'd been expecting all along. It tasted like Frank Bonanno (by way of Alberto Zubios), and it left me wondering why every plate couldn't taste this good, why every single item on the menu (like every single item on Bonanno's other menus) doesn't work equally well.
Overall, Milagro is like that lobster tostada, which was a sad attempt to save a broken presentation by throwing a lot of extra ingredients at it. Every good cook knows that's no way to make a plate work better; all it does is make a mess. You don't save a dish by adding, you do it by subtracting. And you don't create a neighborhood hangout by running for the culinary high ground; you do it by cooking smart and cooking simple. The kitchen here is certainly capable of that; no one creates such a splendid soup or plates a salmon so smartly or makes a good mole by accident. It's too complicated, takes too much care. You either know what you're doing or you don't.
And Bonanno does. He's not a young chef or a wild chef. He doesn't do things on impulse. If he didn't know what he was doing hunched over the mole pot (or couldn't hire a guy who did), he wouldn't make a mole. Simple as that. He is one of those creatures increasingly rare in the business these days: a consistently successful chef-owner making bank with all his overwork (three restaurants going, a fourth just opening, and him in the whites nearly every night), his obsessiveness over ingredients and his commitment to authenticity evident in everything he does. The man plans well and just doesn't make mistakes.
So what happened?
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"I made a mistake," he tells me a couple of days after my final review meal at Milagro, when I catch him on the phone picking up supplies at Sur Le Table. He'd wanted to go in cheap and sleazy and right with a serious taquería in a neighborhood badly in need of just such a thing, but because the room was too big to support with nothing but tacos and enchiladas, Haber had different ideas about high-end entrees. So Bonanno's first menu incorporated both the highs and the lows, and they discovered that customers weren't going for the fancy stuff. Folks weren't nearly as into $18 shrimp in tarragon crema as they were $8 taco plates. Ninety-five percent of the customers order tacos, Bonanno says. The check average is $19. They're giving away chips, guacamole, four kinds of fresh-made salsa, and they're bleeding. And one of the reasons he decided to go with a Mexican joint in the first place was that he badly needed a restaurant that would actually make him some money.
The name might have been part of the problem, Bonanno thinks. Calling the place a taco bar gave people an idea of what to expect that the kitchen didn't necessarily deliver. But that's changing. And those lobster tostadas? Off the menu next week.
"It is what it is," Bonanno says. "I'm very proud of what we've done here. But we're still working, still dialing in the food."
And getting some wrong numbers. Five months out, Milagro continues to be a work in progress -- improving but not yet improved, trying to find itself, yet still out there somewhere, genius lost in translation.