I say this not just because Casa Bonita’s sopaipillas would be a step up from the flan, which has all the creaminess of extra-firm tofu. But if cliff divers were jumping off this mezzanine into a pool of water below, at least you’d have something other than horchata margaritas to take your mind off the wad of cash you’re dropping on food that sounds better than it is. Also, if divers claimed the upstairs for themselves, diners would never again be banished to that Siberia of dining rooms — dark, out of the way, and devoid of the main floor’s flamboyance, without which the premium pricing seems that much harder to justify.
Don’t get me wrong: The food at Que Bueno Suerte! is nothing like Casa Bonita’s combo platters. The menu is devoted to modern Mexican fare, translated by a team that represents an embarrassment of culinary riches: consulting chef Dana Rodriguez, a two-time James Beard Best Chef Southwest nominee and chef-owner of Work & Class, and executive chef Vicente Sosa, formerly of Work & Class and Rioja. The classics you do find come with elevated touches, such as lamb necks, not beef, and avocado-roasted-garlic aioli, not sour cream.
The chefs’ mission to showcase the breadth of Mexico’s storied cuisine is not only laudable, but long overdue, given the commonly held but entirely false notion that tacos and burritos are all there is. But perhaps it was asking too much to transform Que Bueno!, a Mexican joint previously in Westminster and still operating in DIA, into Que Bueno Suerte! After all, Mission Yogurt, Inc., the Denver-based group behind Que Bueno Suerte!, specializes in airport concessions, not high-end dining.
Still, couples on dates seem to like it here. So do groups of ladies in the gauzy, shoulder-baring shirts that are so popular now. You’ll marvel at the space’s glitziness, with red-velvet booths, glass panels engraved with Mayan-style figurines, and those glowing fluorescent tubes rescued from the old Session Kitchen days. You’ll even like a few dishes — or parts of them, anyway — even if you won’t find yourself raving about them to friends the next day.
Start with pulpo a la parrilla (grilled octopus), with charred, coin-sized slices of octopus and a salad of fennel ribbons entwined with grapefruit. The brightness comes in waves: citrus-marinated octopus; dressing with juiced lemons, limes and oranges; and grapefruit carefully relieved of bitter pith and membranes to reveal its inner sweetness. Chicken tinga is nicely nuanced thanks to its tomato-guajillo sauce. Elote, reinterpreted as white grit cakes rather than street-style corn on the cob, is cut into logs and exquisitely fried, golden on the outside, creamy within. Swirl them in the requesón, a thin Mexican ricotta, and the grayish-green huitlacoche-butter sauce that mingle artfully on the plate.
Smoked pork tenderloin is generously portioned and wisely accented, with crisp jicama slaw and fried maduros that don’t hit like sugar bombs, thanks to a dusting of chipotle powder. Pibil is as winsome as you’d expect, given the dynamite version that Sosa — a native of the Yucatán, where the dish originated — made at Work & Class. Here the dark-red sauce, with lime, orange and earthy achiote paste, is paired not with pork, but with pheasant, pan-roasted and on the bone.
These and other dishes, however, rarely reached their potential on my visits. Thinner octopus arms came out rubbery and overly blackened to the point of bitterness. Panucho had a scant smear of black-bean purée inside the pocket and next to no chicken tinga, making it nearly indistinguishable from plain (albeit housemade) tortillas topped with lettuce. The accompanying pitcher of heady chicken-chipotle jus, which servers tell you to sip between bites, made them even blander by comparison. Wild-mushroom conserva that would’ve moved elote out of the bar-snack category was gone within a bite or two, and the earthiness of the huitlacoche sauce was masked by fennel and shishitos. Avocado mousse couldn’t salvage greasy beef empanadas that had a nasty habit of dripping in all the wrong places. Mezcal-infused rice seemed to be missing one of its two main ingredients. An oversized tamal Yucateco, wrapped in plantain leaves rather than corn husks, needed far more achiote chicken for the expanse of dough.
Sauces were either overbearing or unreasonably shy. That lovely red sauce with the faisan a la pibil was heavily applied, making the pheasant skin soggy under the smother; the bird itself was dry, a disappointing substitution for what’s normally fork-tender cochinita. In another entree, Oaxacan mole overshadowed the subtle richness of duck-leg confit, also plagued by soggy skin, and the sauce tasted strongly of chocolate, despite the list of twenty-some ingredients. Pork tenderloin, on the other hand, gained little from the faint, sweet broth billed as a chipotle-orange pan sauce.
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There’s just no escaping the feeling that you should be getting more for your money. This realization sets in early with the chips and salsa, the snack everyone loves to love. For $7, you’d expect a trio of salsas offering a range of heat, smoke and sweet. Instead, you get one bland tomatillo concoction in desperate need of brightness, and chips that require more than a few shakes of salt to perk up. Staff, though friendly, lacks the polish you’d expect from a restaurant with these aspirations. Food is delivered drop-and-run style with nary a word, much less a detailed explanation of what’s on the plate.
When entrees top out at $42 and tabs for two accelerate to triple digits even when no one’s drinking, you might find yourself wishing you’d chosen a very different kind of Mexican restaurant for your night out. One with a show, perhaps, so at least you’d know what you’re paying for.
Que Bueno Suerte!
1518 South Pearl Street
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 4-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Chips and salsa $7
Pulpo a la parrilla $13
Tamal Yucateco $10
Empanada de picadillo $9
Pato con mole $24
Puerco ahumado $28
Faisan a la pibil $32