Buckets o' Yummy

Kokobana's 'Mexican' food is delicious, even if it's a bit less than authentic.

I find the existence of Kokobana Mexican Grill to be a bit perplexing.

My confusion stems from the fact that Kokobana a less-than-authentic Mexican food joint in a city where amazing, authentic Mexican joints are a dime a dozen. The location of Kokobana within the city also is odd--it's tucked into a hard-to-see space in the Broadway Village area, next to places like Elle, where parking can occasionally be hard to come by.

But you know what? I hope Kokobana succeeds, because its food is delicious and somewhat unique.

I visited Kokobana on a recent Friday for lunch. I met Jim Nintzel, The Weekly's esteemed senior staff writer, to nosh and commiserate with him regarding heinous Best of Tucson deadlines. I arrived first, unintentionally sneaking in unnoticed. It was early, before the lunch rush, and the employees were apparently having some sort of pow-wow in back.

The décor gives Kokobana a fast-food, Mexican-chain feel, even though Kokobana is not part of a chain--at least not yet. The walls are painted blue and covered with wicker in some parts, in an effort to give the space a cabana-like feel. The bar is also blue, and a multi-color menu hangs on one of the walls next to a salsa bar. The chairs are pastel shades of colors like pink and neon green. To be honest, it's a bit much. It looks like someone hired the Easter bunny, got him high and told him to give the place a Mexican/tropical theme.

Jim arrived, apparently in a noisier fashion than I did, alerting the employees that we were present. The woman working behind the counter apologized profusely for not knowing I was here. No problem, I said; I am just sneaky.

We stared at the menu, trying to figure out what we wanted. This is not a table-service sort of place; you go up to the counter, order your meals, and then walk up to get them when called (although they'll occasionally deliver the grub to your table). For starters, Jim and I decided to blow our diets completely and get the botanas sampler ($9.99) featuring three appetizers: pipeline flautas ($6.95 separately; tortillas rolled and then fried containing crab, peppers, bacon and cheese), bahia poppers ($4.99; yellow peppers stuffed with cream cheese and then wrapped in bacon before being grilled) and koko loco nachos ($4.50; corn tortilla chips topped with beans, tomatoes, green onions, olives, guacamole, sour cream, jack and cheddar cheeses and either steak or chicken; shrimp can be substituted for $1.49 more). We also got some chips and salsa, and with that, we invaded the salsa bar, which features five different salsas: a pineapple/citrus concoction, a pico de gallo-like salsa, two red sauces and a green sauce.

The chips--thicker than most--were fresh and crispy, and happily not the least bit oily. The salsas were decent, but the only one that stood out was the pineapple citrus salsa, which was perfect, not too sweet, with just a little kick.

As we munched on the chips, we heard the sound of something being dumped into boiling oil. Healthy grub, this ain't.

As we went to get our sampler, Jim and I ordered our main courses. Jim chose the surf 'n' turf bucket ($10.99) featuring grilled shrimp and marinated, grilled chicken. Other "buckets," featuring everything from lobster tails to crab legs to carne asada, are also available for up to $17.99 per person or more (a crab bucket goes for market price). I ordered the taco combo with shrimp and chicken (one of each for $5.98). Burritos, quesadillas and salads are also for sale, and there's a kids' menu as well.

Orders placed, we dug into our appetizers. To say we were pleasantly surprised would be an understatement: Everything was delicious. The poppers, while a bit greasy (to be expected with cheese and bacon), were tasty and spicy-hot. The nachos were decadent, with the marinated chicken (featuring a distinct citrus flavor) and the other fresh ingredients all pleasing the taste buds. But the highlight was the flautas. They did not skimp with the crab--the small tortillas overflowed with crab and cheese. They were amazing--if a bit cholesterol-intensive. (They come with "a trio of dippin' sauces," which were all OK; the flautas were so good, they didn't need them.)

As we cleared off the appetizers, our main courses were ready. My tacos were fine--they're hard to mess up, of course, but thanks to the tasty shrimp and marinated chicken and the cabbage instead of lettuce, these were better than average. The accompaniments, rice and beans, were a mixed bag. The rice, featuring cheese, was mellow but good. The refried beans, however, tasted weird, producing a bitter flavor that seemed out of place.

Jim was quite happy with his bucket. An environmentalist's nightmare, these small, shiny buckets are stuffed with paper before the food is placed on top. He reported that his chunks of grilled, marinated chicken were top-notch--I stole a taste, and it was similar to the stuff in the nachos. He also loved the Baja-seasoned shrimp, which had a peppery flavor.

We were stuffed. Our diets completely blown, we couldn't help ourselves from eating--the food was that tasty.

So what if it isn't authentic? So what if Kokobana is a little hard to see from the street? So what if the décor is bright to the point of annoying? The food at Kokobana is wonderful. Just order wisely, and be sure to get a good workout to work off those calories afterward.

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