In Pursuit of Perfection

Contigo Cocina Latina brings a focus on sustainability to its Spanish/Latin-American cuisine

The pursuit of culinary perfection depends on minute details and timing. Sear a scallop for 30 seconds too long, and you've transformed a fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth delicacy into a rubbery mess.

Fortunately, Contigo Cocina Latina is all about the attention to details—although perfection seemed to be just out of reach on my visits.

Occupying a now-urban-chic space that used to be Coach's Deli, there's no hint that the casual sports-themed restaurant ever existed. Contigo's space is glammed up by Tucson standards, with a dark, rich décor, a sleek bar, chandeliers and the like. The restaurant is beautiful—but noisy. If you're seated in the front, you get the sounds from the open kitchen; in the back, the large, open space and the industrial-style rafter ceilings mix with the noise from the bar to make quiet conversation difficult.

The wine list, menu and inventive cocktails are all influenced by Spanish, South American and Central American cuisine—with some room left for interpretation. The wine list (heavy on Spanish varieties) has a nice variety and is well-priced; the signature cocktail menu employs a mélange of unusual ingredients and creative mixtures. My favorite of the signature cocktails (all $8) was the poquito picante, a gin-and-Cointreau mix with cucumber, jalapeño, cilantro and lemon. It was a perfect cool summer drink with a nice, spicy kick—though I have to say that the yerba mate-infused pisco cocktail was also a treat.

During our first visit to Contigo—late on a weeknight—the food and service were spot-on. Our server, a smiling young gentleman originally from Brazil, had a great depth of knowledge about the food. The restaurant had run out of bread and chimichurri, but he graciously brought out a plate of crisp house-fried purple potato chips, garnished with chives and sea salt, as a substitute. We'd hardly dug in to the chips when the appetizers arrived. The favoritas ($5)—dates stuffed with chorizo, wrapped in smoked pork and served piping-hot—were our favorite. The pork arepa ($6 for one, $14 for three)—a "slider" stuffed with moist, smoky shredded pork, mango sauce and cotija—were also delicious, though it could have been a little warmer, and is a little pricey for the size.

We had plenty of time to finish off those chips after the appetizers, because the entrées took quite some time to arrive—but the wait was well worth it. I'd chosen the mariscada de peixe ($22), a shellfish stew. The shellfish is in constant rotation, and Contigo serves only sustainable seafood, as designated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. That evening's selection was a mix of shrimp, clam and scallops—all "good alternatives" or "best choices," according to my Seafood Watch iPhone app, as long as those shrimp weren't imported black-tiger shrimp, tiger prawns or white shrimp. The stew, which was more like a thin, fragrant, flavorful broth, was served in a shallow bowl graced with several large scallops, a handful of nice-sized shrimp and a dozen or so clams.

Ted ordered the chuletas chimichurri ($21), grilled lamb chops with chimichurri and fries. The lamb was cooked to a perfect medium-rare, and had a nice citrus note from the marinade, though I thought the chops were a little thin; I would have preferred two thicker chops to the four or five thin ones. The chimichurri was served on the side, and seemed a little heavy on the oil and light on the vinegar, though it was a good accompaniment to the lamb. The fries were crisp and hot, but just a little under-seasoned.

On our second visit, the service was great, and the food was again almost perfect—with just a few minor missteps in the details. The bikini Contigo ($5)—a Spanish-style toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich—was crunchy, with melted, gooey cheese, but the ham was so mild that it was almost unnoticeable. The ceviche peruana ($12), which our server told us included a nice, sushi-grade ahi (the fish apparently changes based on availability), was beautifully presented, piled high in a large martini glass and surrounded by purple potato chips. The fish was fresh and not "overcooked" by the viscous citrus mix, which had a nice flavor, although it was almost overwhelmingly tart.

The entrées again took a long time to come out, but were very good when they finally arrived. I picked the anticuchos de pollo with black beans and rice ($15). The skewered strips of chicken breast were well-seasoned, perfectly cooked and moist, but were difficult to eat off the skewers without poking myself. Using a knife to cut the chicken off the skewer resulted in little wood flakes in the chicken, which isn't particularly delicious. The beans were creamy but otherwise unremarkable, and the rice was buttery and fluffy.

Ted's churrasco ($19) was the best-prepared dish we had on either visit. The 10-ounce grass-fed rib eye was well-seasoned, juicy and cooked to a perfect medium-rare—no easy feat, since grass-fed beef is generally lower in fat and tends to dry out easily. This time, the chimichurri had a great oil/vinegar balance and provided a nice acidity to balance the steak.

We were planning to order dessert, but the honey fried plantains ($5) that we ordered as a side were so sweet and sticky that they were better as an after-dinner treat than as a complement to the entrées.

Contigo promotes their use of local, organic, humanely harvested and sustainable ingredients, although they don't say which of the ingredients fall into these categories on their menu. The flavors and menus are mature and well-developed.

And those scallops in the mariscada de peixe? Absolute perfection.