Nuevo Latino

Dos Locos' tasty food isn't wildly creative, but it may leave you feeling a little daring

Some people make the mistake of calling Dos Locos, one of the dining rooms at the Hilton El Conquistador, a Mexican restaurant. It isn't, certainly not if your idea of Mexican is El Charro or Mi Nidito.

Dos Locos actually serves "nuevo Latino" cuisine, like its chief competitor a few miles down Oracle Road, Miguel's. It applies a nouvelle aesthetic to recipes inspired very generally by Latin American food, although few of the dishes correspond exactly to anything you'd find at a traditional restaurant anywhere in Latin America.

The room, not far off the hotel's main lobby, is cavernous, with a high ceiling ascending to utter blackness, dotted by rows of colored light bulbs, like what you'd find strung up at a Mexican fiesta. The lower ceiling over the bar looks more like pressed tin, although I didn't get close enough to see whether it was real or faux; the night we visited, the bar was closed, and our server had to trot over to one of the resort's other bars to fetch our drinks. I imagine the patio would be a lovely place from which to watch the sunset, but at this time of year, you have to arrive pretty early for a scenic showcase.

The menu offers all the basics you find at upscale restaurants these days (at least those that don't specialize in organs and other oddities): duck, crab and pulled pork find their way into the appetizers, and the entrées involve salmon, tilapia, pork loin, chicken breast and a couple of cuts of steak. The difference here is the nuevo Latino twist.

Our party of four shared the chicken quesadilla appetizer ($7), a flour tortilla wrapped around chicken chunks, manchego cheese (the Spanish touch), pico de gallo and, I think, a mild chipotle crema, with a dollop of guacamole on the side. My friend Jeff, who orders chicken quesadillas wherever he can find them, declared this to be the best he'd ever had. Indeed, the chicken still tasted like chicken; it wasn't smothered by the other flavors, not even by the cheese. Like the other dishes we ordered, it wasn't very spicy--Dos Locos is, after all, at a resort catering to the potentially timid taste buds of out-of-towners--but that can be ameliorated by applying a fair amount of the chunky salsa that's served with the obligatory tortilla chips (they're dusted with chile powder, by the way--an unexpected treat).

Jeff also orders salmon wherever he can find it, but he was reluctant to try Dos Locos' wild salmon ($26). He doesn't generally care for salmon served with crispy skin, as it is here, and he was afraid that the orange-chile glaze would be too sweet. In the spirit of discovery, he ordered it anyway, and was glad he did. The skin didn't offend him (and what he didn't want was easy to peel off), and the salmon had a full flavor; the orange in the glaze was initially hard for him to detect. Later, Jeff decided that the glaze was fine after all, and would be a marvelous heat-delivery device had the chef favored more fiery flavors. The salmon was accompanied by a little fennel slaw and a not-gummy garlic herb risotto.

Our friend Kelly opted for the chile-spiced tilapia ($19), in an achiote marinade, served atop coconut jasmine rice, with a mango salsa and pineapple ginger mojo. It seemed more Pacific Rim than nuevo Latino, but Kelly thought the fish was cooked well and was nicely complemented by the mango salsa.

That same salsa had less of an effect on my Yucatan pork loin ($24), the restaurant's signature dish. The two generous pork medallions, like the tilapia, were grilled fresh from an achiote marinade; they leaned upon a mound of chipotle-cheddar potato purée, with a few spears of almost-but-not-quite-overcooked broccoli on the side, and a long, thin plantain crisp jutting phallically skyward. This is probably the most visually attractive dish on the menu, but the achiote and chipotle were employed so subtly that they had a limited impact until I'd finished eating, when I noticed a teasing afterburn around my uvula. The pork itself wasn't highly flavorful, perhaps because I'd ordered it cooked to medium doneness. (With pork, I don't take any chances with trichinosis.) Still, a pork chop I'd ordered medium at Westward Look's Gold Room a few nights before was moister and tastier. This wasn't bad, but it wasn't special.

Yvonne, my wife, was similarly ambivalent about her corn and black bean poblano ($13). The pepper was roasted and stuffed with the aforementioned fire-roasted corn and black beans, plus goat cheese, and topped with a guajillo crema. Yvonne said she would have been perfectly satisfied with this dish had she not in the past had something similar at Barrio Grill downtown that was less rich but tastier.

The hit among the desserts (all $8.50) was the strawberry vacherin, which in the Dos Locos version is a "meringue nest" filled with strawberry sorbet, topped with fresh strawberries and set swimming in a peach crème brlée (which in this case is not a custard but a cream sauce). Unlike my companions, I ordered the dessert trio: a tiny, warm apple empanada with an attractive smear of berry sauce on the side, a cinnamon vanilla bean gelato (not too heavy on the cinnamon) and a scoop of tropical rice pudding. Each item came in a small portion, keeping the overall size of the dessert under control.

In the end, Dos Locos holds its own in the limited local nuevo Latino market. Still, its dishes lack the unusual imagination of those at, say, Café Poca Cosa; it's a restaurant that lets you feel a little daring, without really straying too far afield. Which is, after all, exactly what you expect at a resort like the Hilton El Conquistador.

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