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If you know Dave Query, founder of Big Red F Restaurant Group (Centro Mexican Kitchen, Zolo Grill, West End Tavern, Post Brewing Co., Jax Fish House, and Lola Coastal Mexican), you know that he is a) easy to like, and b) not afraid to shake things up. Both of these aspects of his personality form the basis of the incredible metamorphosis that Big Red F’s LoHi restaurant, Lola, has undergone over the past two weeks. But really, the story begins further back.
About four years ago, Query was introduced to award-winning chef Javier Plascencia by a mutual friend at a Super Bowl party at Plascencia’s house in Baja. The two chefs bonded over mezcal and a shared love of Baja culture and cuisine, staying in touch and, eventually, inviting each other to dine and cook at their respective restaurants—Query traveled to Ensanada in Baja California, Mexico, to cook at a seafood festival and try Plascencia’s northern Baja restaurants in 2016, and later that year, Plascencia came to Denver to cook at Lola and eat at other Big Red F spots.
“[Dave] and I just clicked. He understands my philosophy,” Plascencia says. “And Denver reminds me a lot of Baja in that it’s casual but professional, and there’s a lot of pride in sustainability. I really like the vibe of this town.” So, when Query finally asked Plascencia to join the Lola team as chef and partner late last year, the Tijuana-born chef readily agreed.
“Lola needed a good kick in the ass,” Query says, “and Javier is the real deal.” Plascencia has certainly brought acclaim to San Diego for his (now-closed) restaurant, Bracero Cocina de Raíz, which was nominated for a 2016 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. He’s also credited with creating an entirely new cuisine—Baja Med—through his cooking at Tijuana’s Mision 19 and Erizo; Finca Altozano in Ensanada; and Jazamango Restaurante in Todos Santos, B.C., Mexico.
“Baja Med cooking is influenced by [the region’s] Chinese communities, Japanese techniques, and the Mexican families that come to Baja through immigration,” says Plascencia. “I’m lucky to work with these people and taste their food, and now bring those flavors to Denver, too.”
Plascencia spent more than a week in Denver, working with executive chef Sheila Lucero (who will continue leading the kitchens and sourcing sustainable seafood for Lola and Jax) and the Lola kitchen crew to train them on his recipes and cooking style. His Baja Med influence is felt across the food menus, which are entirely updated (except for the beloved chicken-fried steak at brunch time, which remains the same as it ever was).
Now, oysters on the half-shell come with serrano ponzu, watermelon aguachile, and a tangy pineapple “tepache” made by burning pineapple flesh and skins and then fermenting them in vinegar. A raw scallop “tiradito,” akin to ceviche, rests on a gorgeous sauce of puréed pickled carrots (called “escabeche”), dressed with ribbons of raw carrot, radish, and cucumber. The shrimp ceviche is a knockout, both in look and flavor, due to Plascencia’s smooth “black widow” salsa—the sauce’s ebony hue, which covers the dish like a goth blanket, comes from burning and blending onion, tortillas, and chiltepin chiles with fresh lemon. It may look alarming but it tastes neither burnt nor bitter, rather fresh, bright, and gently spiced.
Surf-and-turf elements also play a big role in Lola’s new menu, with crispy dried “machacha” beef dusting a tuna tostada and shrimp and octopus playing well with carne asada and pinto beans on the fabulous griddled Tijuanero taco.
Lola’s drink menu has also been revamped by the owner of Boulder’s the Bitter Bar, James Lee. The popular coin margarita no longer contains agave, you should know, and gets more body and depth from both blanco and reposado tequilas. Our new favorite sipper is Lee’s Black Forest cocktail, a beautiful combination of Old Forester bourbon, muddle blackberries, and Ancho Reyes chile liqueur.
All of the above are now available for dinner and brunch in Lola’s bright, coastal-themed space, designed by Query’s friend and L.A.-based designer, Kari Whitman. She transformed the old Lola, which was rather dark and closed off, into a sunny, open, white-and-blue-themed restaurant with chunky rope partitions, graphic wallpaper, glass buoy light fixtures, and tables topped with pine reclaimed from Lola’s former floor. There’s even a fun, three-person swing seat on the patio that looks through a window into the dining room. Most impressive of all, the restaurant’s entrance has been moved off Boulder Street onto 16th Street—guests now walk into Lola through the grand double doors of the former Olinger chapel.
All of which is to say that if not for Query’s outgoing personality, none of the above would have come to pass—and for that, Denver owes Query a debt of gratitude.