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(out of 4 stars)
1575 Boulder St., 720-570-8686, www.loladenver.com
Must-Try New Dishes: Diver scallops, Mexi-French toast
Old Favorites: Roughy ceviche, grilled shrimp xuba soup
When Lola, a coastal Mexican restaurant, was located in Platt Park (2002-2006), diners were so enamored they routinely waited two hours for a table. When critic Lori Midson visited in 2003, she shook her head at the lines but deemed Lola’s food—from guacamole to seafood enchiladas—full of playful flavors, and noted that the restaurant’s service was “friendly and smart.” Lola thrived, but the crowds became too much for the small space, and in April 2006 chef-owner Jamey Fader packed up his knives and moved Lola to Highland. Curious to see how the restaurant has settled into its new digs, we headed to the new Lola, just as it celebrated its second anniversary.
Successful Mexican food hinges on a careful balance of sweet tomatoes, savory garlic, kicky jalapeños, sharp onions, and earthy corn. So when my sister and I opened Lola’s menu looking for something to accompany our tart Lolatinis ($10)—tequila, lime juice, and Citronge cocktails served in salted martini glasses—we went straight for the creamy corn and grilled shrimp xuba soup ($9) and the chunky tomato- and jalapeño-flecked roughy ceviche ($10). The two classic Lola dishes promised to transport us to a sunny afternoon in Baja, while giving us a chance to taste how dishes from the original Lola menu fit the restaurant’s new, hip spot.
The restaurant now has an adjoining indoor and outdoor bar, patio seating, dining room seating, an open kitchen, and a lower-level bar and lounge called BeLola. The new layout has given the eatery far more than simply space to seat its diners. Swank with orange walls, sculpted iron chandeliers, and an artistic collection of Mexican-inspired crosses, the new Lola’s several distinctive ambiences offers guests different experiences almost every night of the week. The bar business is steady (and crowded), but Mondays generally mean $2 chicken tacos on a bar stool overlooking downtown; Fridays begin with stiff lime margaritas ($7-$14) on a couch in BeLola; and Sundays round out the week with a leisurely breakfast of refried bean and scrambled egg tacos ($9) in the dining room.
Tonight, though, as our friendly server slides the ceviche and generous bowls of golden soup onto our table, we are immediately transported to the small, intimate dining room of the original Lola. The ceviche and soup’s savory spices offer the precise Mexican flavors that made Lola so popular in the first place. Now these flavors anchor, but don’t dominate, the new Lola menu, which has taken more creative liberty. Whether chef Jamey Fader is playing with non-Mexican ingredients in Mexican dishes (such as tender scallops in spicy chipotle sauce with coconut milk collard greens, $22), or adding Mexican ingredients to non-Mexican dishes (like the $9 Mexi-French toast stuffed with pecan-cream cheese and ladled with maple syrup and bites of pumpkin), he consistently offers an evolving menu that keeps pace with the dynamic atmosphere of the new Lola.
With so much diversion it’s easy to forgive the moments when the restaurant stumbles. Laments about Lola’s tasty but monotonous cocktails are quickly forgotten when a server brings a sampling of Tempranillo and Pinot Noir so you can best pair your wine with dinner. And, memories of a firm, pan-seared cobia fish with smoked onion enchiladas ($19) hold over when a bland arroz con leche dessert ($7) heavily loaded with almonds fails to satisfy.
In the new Lola, my sister and I sit back easily and enjoy. With no waits, a menu that is constantly playful, and a variety of dining atmospheres, Lola is all the more accessible to its diners. It’s no wonder that since its move the restaurant’s clientele has grown to include suburbanites, young Highland couples, and downtown dwellers. We will certainly be back—and then the only tough choice will be where to sit. —Kazia Jankowski