Restaurants and food culture are mysterious in their interdependence. For example, there are some geographic locations that seem ideal for a culinary destination – and yet nothing works no matter how many restaurants open there.
At other times, a new location will open in a nondescript location that for some reason is bound to be a great success. In the latter context we have La Llorona in Niantic. From the moment it opened in April in the building that used to be Burke’s Tavern and now the Lionheart Tavern, people have happily waited in lines to sample La Llorona’s “progressive Mexican cuisine” (and for more to return from it).
Given that my wife, Eileen, and I grew up in Texas, where you can eat really excellent Mexican food three times a day and go back months without visiting the same restaurant, our quarter of a century in southeast Connecticut doesn’t offer the same opportunities. There are of course an abundance of other excellent local cuisines in the area, and we tasted some of them. But the opportunities for Mexicans have slowly increased, and we’re always excited to hear from a new place that focuses on the opportunities south of the border.
We visited La Llorona on a weekend evening with our pals Susan and Ted. True to the rumor, the place burst. The outside terrace, with its wrought-iron fences and tables with umbrellas, was full of guests – many of them had large margaritas cups to facilitate the festive discourse.
There was a lot going on inside too, but after a painless 15-minute wait, we were shown to a high table on the window front in the dining room. From our slightly elevated vantage point, we couldn’t help but feel happy, because the guests seemed to be enjoying each other so much. The spirit was contagious.
It is also a beautiful and thematically designed room. The atmosphere is cantina chic, with patterned tile floors, tables comfortably spaced, and a series of step-up niches along the side wall separated by recessed wood paneling on the ceiling. Each stand has a rustic, artificial overhang, above which are blue wooden letters in stylized script that spell out the names of Mexican states such as Jalisco or Oaxaca. Inside the booth itself, the current state is reflected in a photo.
The remaining walls of the large, square room are rust-colored and set off with framed artwork, including a large painting of the iconic image of La Llorona herself. In the Aztec creation myth, La Llorona is “the hungry woman” who constantly cries out for food.
Well, she won’t be hungry for long when she has dinner at her restaurant of the same name in Niantic.
The portions are more than filling, but that precedes us a bit. Let me say our server was delightful throughout our experience. She refilled drinks and answered veggie-centric questions, and the food came at an impressive rate given the full house.
Looking at the menu and the specialties of the evening, I tried to understand what “progressive Mexican” means exactly. The restaurant, a family run business with Michoacan roots and plenty of hands-on experience in southeast Connecticut, including the Steak Loft, turned out to be a lot of familiar things – burritos, tacos, fajitas, and more – presented in various combinations and twists with family recipes . The progressive idea also extends to the willingness of employees to respond to customer requests and comments.
Ted, Susan, and Eileen each tried margaritas, which were served in large ice-smothered cups, and agreed they had just enough tequila and an ideal tart-to-sweet ratio.
Of over a dozen appetizer options ranging from nachos and crispy chicken wings to crab ceviche tostadas and green mole tamales, we tried two. First – because you have to try out some of the basics, right? – Was Chips & Guacamole ($ 11); the other was Elote Callejero (Mexican street corn, $ 7).
The guac was chunky and soft, the fries were warm and crispy, and the combination was especially fun when dipped in a thin, peppery house salsa. The street corn – served on the cob with a layer of mayo, cotija cheese, playful chiltepin pepper, and cilantro bits – was overly salty so it was hard to appreciate the other calibrated flavors.
Still and forever a vegetarian, Eileen went with Enchiladas de Pollo o Queso ($ 16). The cheese is Oaxaca – a white cheese that is similar in texture to mozzarella, so has a good goo factor – and you can choose between sauces: guajillo sauce or salsa verde. Based on her childhood vacation in New Mexico, Eileen ordered it “Christmas,” which means with red and green sauce. The guajillo sauce was smoky and intense, like the pepper it is named after; the green is tangy and bright like the tomatillos it contains. Merry Christmas! The enchiladas are also topped with lettuce, red onions, radish and cotija cheese and served with earthy, fried black beans and al dente rice. All in all, a tasty and filling dish.
As a starter, I was extremely tempted by Tacos Doradoes de Flor de Calabeza y Camarones ($ 22) – filled, crispy fried tacos with pumpkin blossom, fried cheese, and shrimp, served with house rice and beans, and red and green salsas. I ended up going for a burrito de carne al horno ($ 17).
It was a lot of fun. A large flour tortilla tent contained torn, tender, and smoky pork shoulder along with skillfully cooked rice and beans, shredded crispy lettuce, queso and crÃ¨me fresca, and a rich ladle of guajillo sauce. I liked it but got haunted by the shrimp / squash tacos that I didn’t try. Next time?
Ted and Susan have a relative in Dallas who they visit quite often, so they are equally well versed in the nuances of Tex-Mex and Mexican cuisine outside of New England. As a standard by which to reliably compare and contrast, Susan asked about the Chiles Rellenos ($ 18), which include egg-beaten and roasted poblano peppers and cooked in a steamed tomato sauce. The dish was served with hot corn tortillas and rice and beans, which Susan said were made with authenticity rather than brought out as the usual side dish.
With so many options, Ted cleverly opted for a fajitas combo – chicken, shrimp, and carne asada ($ 22 for all three) – and they arrived with the sizzling hiss and grilled / citrus aroma that ran the entire dining area faint? . Also on board: Spanish onions, intertwined slices of various peppers, rice and beans as well as Poblano peppers. Every component was expertly grilled for maximum flavor, and the veggies had a crack that made for a happy and earthy contrast when all wrapped in flour tortillas.
La Llorona seems to have already made a name for itself in Niantic as a destination for fans beyond the village – and rightly so. There are certainly creative elements at work that give traditional cuisine a progressive aspect, and the atmosphere and service are equally appealing.