Ten years isn't a long time, unless you're in the restaurant business, in which case surviving a decade can seem like a monumental achievement. And with the rapid changes in Denver dining tastes and the explosion of hot new restaurant neighborhoods over the past few years, older eateries find themselves hobbling to keep up with the young kids.
You have to grow or stagnate, which is something restaurant ownership group the Big Red F seems to be well aware of. In addition to recently revitalizing the downtown Jax Fish House, Big Red F owner Dave Query and his associates have added a shiny new Jax at City Set in Glendale and spruced up their other establishments in Boulder. Now they've turned their eye toward the queen of the hill, Lola, in trendy LoHi to make sure it's ready for another ten years.
Lola is launching a new menu tomorrow in conjunction with its annual July Fourth celebration. Big Red F culinary director Jamey Fader and new Lola top toque Kevin Grossi agree about maintaining appeal while still retaining Lola's identity. First up, a minor rebranding: Lola dropped the "coastal cuisine" tagline and is now simply Lola Mexican Fish House. "We've always been a fish house," says Fader. "Now it's in our name."
A new logo -- a languid cursive L with a mermaid tail -- was created to keep Lola sexy, as Fader puts it. That sexy feel, he adds, is part of the continuity Lola is striving for -- in recent interior upgrades that refurbished original wood surfaces and added splashes of vibrant wall paper prints; in new cocktails featuring colorful ingredients like cactus paddle juice and hits of chile; and most of all in a revamped menu, designed by Grossi, that's at least 50 percent new items.
"We're not literalists here," says Grossi, explaining his approach to Mexican cuisine, "but we're also not fusion." The two share a vision that it's important for them to maintain the integrity of traditional dishes, enchiladas for example, even if they add seasonal ingredients, like smoke mushrooms, from outside the standard canon. And when adding new items - like staff favorites confit chicken drummies - the flavors must point diners toward Mexico. Grossi points out that another new item on the menu, salmon Veracruz, features the traditional zing of vinegar and tomato but updates the dish with a vivid green broth and salmon that sits above the sauce.
"Salsas are hard," continues Grossi, clarifying that it's not just a matter of throwing a bunch of ingredients in a blender, but that there's a find balance with acid, salt, heat and sweetness that's not easy to nail. Grossi has whipped up a a trio of new salsas to illustrate his dedication to nailing the flavors: pickled habanero with mango (which Fader says he poked fun at until he actually tasted it), smoky blackened tomato with chile de arbol and cumin, and an emerald salsa verde that includes non-traditional basil and parsley.
So how does an established restaurant stay vital in a rapidly changing and overwhelming restaurant scene, especially in a neighborhood where the hottest concepts - speakeasies, noodle bars, in-house butchering and charcuterie, the invasive small plate - drive restaurant-goers on a continuous mission to seek out the newest fad? "It's about reminding people that we're doing things we're proud of," says Fader. A big part of that is just having fun, both chefs agree. A new Friday-dinner program gives wait staff the opportunity to sell unusual, off-menu dishes to a just a couple of tables that night. Guests who take the offer might get plates built around fish collar (from butchered whole seafood) for example, highlighted by seasonal ingredients like garlic scapes. And all of their menu items feature ingredients sourced locally, Grossi mentions. Tortillas come from Pochito's (where fresh masa is made daily) just up Tejon in Sunnyside, while produce, eggs and and even pork rinds come from Fort Collins-area acreages Native Hill, Spring Kite and Jodar Farms.
"We've been doing this since day one," states Fader, but adds that it's not something the restaurant trumpets. The results, though, can be tasted in the food, he concludes.
Fader points to other ways that Lola continues to commit itself to the neighborhood: annual events like Picnic of the Pig on Cinco de Mayo, Fall Fest, a Halloween costume party and winter regional dinners featuring the cuisine of Oaxaca, Veracruz, Yucatan and Baja California. He also points out that Lola hosts the Dos Casas fundraising dinner for Brent's Place, a healing and recovery facility for cancer patients and their families.
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Since, according to Fader, the restaurant matured before the neighborhood, it's not easy keeping up with LoHi's wave of popularity. In addition to the ever-worsening parking issues, a greater density of restaurants means its harder to hire staff. These are challenges facing every restaurant, but he takes it in stride. One of the pioneers that drew new diners to the neighborhood, Lola continues to strive for fun and freshness without losing its established identity.