What's in a name? The Latin colloquialism for "talk of the town" was a good fit for La Fabula; long before the restaurant actually opened, the neighborhood was talking about what kind of eatery would be brave -- or foolhardy -- enough to take on a location with a long, and largely sorry, history. Most recently, this quaint Victorian bungalow was occupied by Bali Island, an Indonesian spot whose owners said they were relocating but have since sunk out of sight; they took over from The International, an unbelievably peculiar establishment run by a notorious piano player and convicted check-forger; prior to that, the address saw a long line of other joints come and go. In fact, the last time the building housed a prosperous enterprise may have been two decades ago, when it was the original home of La Loma.
Since La Loma continues to do big business just a block away on 26th Avenue, talk was that the upscale Mexican restaurant that owners Ramiro "Rome" Sanchez and Ron Ford had planned for the place just might work.
The restaurant certainly looks fabulous. Sanchez and Ford planted more than a thousand pansies in front, and as a result, the patio is an explosion of colors. With umbrella-shaded tables dotting the bilevel space and trees and plants cascading from hooks around the porch and the tiny parking area on the side, this is one of the town's more comfortable and inviting al fresco dining experiences. Inside, the four small dining rooms look just as appealing. All of the cracks and dings that Bali Island had covered with Indonesian posters are now patched and painted warm Southwestern colors. The walls feature interesting, unkitschy Mexican bric-a-brac -- Aztec paintings share space with turn-of-the-century stained glass -- and the old house's nooks and crannies are filled with colorful crockery and bowls of floating flowers.
You'll have plenty of time to study these surroundings while you wait -- and wait -- for your food. The restaurant clearly suffers from the town's ubiquitous service shortage (resulting in such snafus as menus that take forever to arrive and water that shows up halfway through a meal), but the bigger problems seem to start in the kitchen, which over three meals had trouble executing the ambitious -- and sometimes overblown -- menus. And then there's a little problem regarding the owners' interpretation of the codebook: They may well be breaking the law by inviting diners to bring their own alcohol into a building that hasn't been able to get a liquor license for years. (See The Bite, for more details.)
To liven up its legal liquid refreshments, La Fabula offers a roster of Mexican sodas as well as virgin Bloody Marys and margaritas. We sipped a tequila-free marg as we contemplated the amazing appearance of complimentary chips and salsa -- when was the last time you got that starter for free? We would gladly have paid for this one, because the freshly fried blue, red and yellow corn tortilla chips came with three distinctive salsas. One was a crunchy, cilantro-speckled, pico de gallo-like salsa fresca of tomatoes, onions and peppers, which started out light but got downright addictive. The salsa roja boasted a potent, well-puréed blend of roasted tomatoes and peppers, and the salsa verde, a tomatillo-based brew that contained a variety of chiles, featured a nice smoky touch that wasn't overpowering. A few bites of these well-melded sauces had us eagerly anticipating the meal to come.
Another hour passed, however, before we caught sight of our appetizers. The stuffed jalapeños ($8.95) started with the red, and hotter, stage of the popular pepper (which, by the way, is named after Jalapa, the capital of Veracruz, Mexico), filled it with goat cheese and a whole shrimp, and then wrapped the entire affair in bacon. The combination had possibilities -- the greasy, salty, smoky bacon should have played off the sweet shrimp and rich cheese, with the pepper firing up the flavors -- but because of poor preparation, the cheese was lukewarm and barely melted, the shrimp was overcooked, and the bacon was only partially cooked. The package fell apart at first bite, making it impossible to take a second and sending jalapeño juice running down our arms. The beef sirloin tips asada ($8.25) was more sensible and so somewhat more successful. A nebulous, powdery substance that might have been a chile rub but seemed more like a dry and salty Lipton soup mix dusted the meat. The grilled beef itself was tasty, if a bit chewy, and came with very fresh tortillas, sour cream, avocado, diced onions and tomatoes, all suitable for wrapping.
Far more exotic, and almost magically earthy, were the "tacos of inky" ($9.95). Huitlacoche -- pronounced "hweet-la-co-chay" -- is a Mexican delicacy that's becoming increasingly common north of the border as restaurants get hip to the weird-looking but delicious fungus that grows on corn kernels. Called "corn smut" in culinary circles, these smudgy black bubbles are smooth and spongy when dry, then turn into runny black goo as they're cooked. Their flavor is quintessential mushroom, but with a sweetness that comes from being attached to the sugary corn, and it goes well with spicy chiles and fresh vegetables -- which, oddly enough, are the very items most readily available right after the Mexican rains come, a time when you find these mushrooms in abundance. You can order canned huitlacoche from gourmet mail-order companies (I haven't found a market that carries it yet), but Sanchez and Ford managed to locate an importer that gets it fresh, and it makes for heady eating. "Inky" refers to the black liquid that squeezes out of the huitlacoche, which arrives packed into two small flour tortillas along with diced tomatoes and onions.
La Fabula's prime-rib hash ($12.95, available only at Saturday and Sunday brunch) was another notable find. Although a "hash" usually refers to something that's all chopped up (and, hence, hashed), this was more like a potato breakfast skillet. Spud slices had been layered with meat that was a bit too fatty, then topped by two eggs done over easy (our specs) and smothered with a green-chile-fired hollandaise that had been made to order. And it better have been, because the dish didn't arrive until an hour and a half after we sat down.
Sanchez was working the room hard that morning, explaining that La Fabula wants to be a place where "people aren't in a hurry, where you can come in and spend a few hours and just relax." I'm all for slow-paced dining in some circumstances -- I've enjoyed many a three-hour meal -- but not when you spend two and a half hours on a simple appetizer, an entree and a Coke. And while it was wonderful that Ford came around to check on everyone, if he's talking to a couple for twenty minutes, as he did during that brunch, then he's obviously not doing any cooking.
He's not supervising the kitchen staff on presentation, either. The food that came on La Fabula's dishes -- nice, bright Fiestaware-style plates -- was often so jumbled that it looked like the servers had bumped into each other as they headed out to deliver our food. Although the servings were generous and the ingredients fresh and of high quality, the dishes were so haphazardly assembled that they lacked any layering of flavors. An order of ceviche ($8.95), for example, brought six mini-tostadas each topped by two tablespoons of chopped-up -- hey, here's the hash -- seafood that tasted of nothing but vinegar and onion. The Mexican-style shrimp cocktail ($8.95) filled a martini glass with medium-sized shrimp, but they were drowning in a mayo-consistency avocado dressing that, despite its faint chile kick, was much less interesting than the shrimp and impossible to avoid. The cocktail would have worked much better had the goo come on the side, allowing the diner to decide how much of the creamy glop he wanted to ingest with each bite. The avocado soup ($3.95 a cup) turned out to be more of the same. (It's going to be a while before I'm in the mood to consume anything light-green and creamy again.) After that, the pork green chile ($3.95 a cup) came as a welcome relief, even if the pork hunks were chewy and oddly dry, considering that they'd been floating in a thin, nicely spiced liquid as mild as the menu had promised (you can also order it hot).
Other dishes failed to deliver on the menu's promises, however. The ahi ($19.95) arrived sliced, coated with sesame seeds and seared flawlessly rare. But we couldn't discern any of the advertised ancho pepper on the very fresh fish; the ancho-and-garlic quinoa salad tasted of nothing but quinoa; and the citrus ancho vinaigrette was watered-down orange juice. (Extra points to Ford, though, for incorporating quinoa, an underused, Colorado-indigenous grain, on his roster.) That citrus ancho vinaigrette was very similar to the citrus mango vinaigrette on the salmon ($18.95) -- in fact, the two were virtually indistinguishable -- and while that fillet was well-cooked to a medium-rare, its almond crust had crumbled and was lying in shards on the plate. The side of ancho-poblano mashed potatoes was tasty, if dry.
Ford apparently loves those anchos and poblanos (the ancho is the dried version of the poblano); nearly every entree includes one or the other (and in the case of those mashers, both). But there's a reason this pepper is most frequently seen in chiles rellenos: It's mild, and it does better in dishes where it has the starring role. In the mole poblano de guajolole ($18.95), which featured wild turkey to no noticeable effect, the poblano was completely buried by a very bland mole sauce. For the pollo a la poblano con hongos ($14.95), tender chicken breasts had been strewn with poblano strips, and the rice on the side also contained poblano bits, but the pepper didn't add anything to the mix, and the mushroom cream sauce was also strangely devoid of mushroom flavor. Ford must also love papaya: Each dish was garnished with slices of the fruit, which is wonderful in salads and desserts but provided a bitter, chemical counterpoint here.
The papaya would have been a better dessert alternative than what we tried. The flan de chocolate con Kahlúa ($6.50) had an unpleasantly grainy texture, and the Kahlúa had transmogrified into something that tasted like Amaretto. The deep-fried strawberries ($6.95) were a good idea ruined by so much lime cream sauce -- which didn't taste like lime at all -- that the berries were a soggy mess rather than a crispy treat. And the coconut tart with prickly-pear sauce ($5.75) both looked and tasted like someone had dumped a blob of creamed coconut into a shell and spooned an undistinguished fruity fluid over it.
Yes, they're talking about La Fabula, all right. But four months after this restaurant opened, it's still sending out very mixed messages.
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