Restaurant Reviews

Cuckoo for CocoLoco's

In honor of this stars-and-stripes time of year, I state unequivocally that I often feel lucky to be an American. When I look at the political situation in places like Cuba, I'm thankful that I was born in a country where we get to elect our own morons. When I hear that the synagogue in Rome is still, as the result of a deadly incident of persecution a couple of years ago, being guarded by police armed with machine guns, I am grateful that my daughter's temple preschool has the need for only one security guard. And when I visit the facilities in train stations in Athens, I am delighted that here in America we get to sit on porcelain connected to a plumbing system rather than crouch over lime-strewn holes in the ground.

But at moments I am anything but proud to be a part of this society -- as when so-called American bars and restaurants such as the month-old Gatsby's in Davie refuse to allow anyone younger than 21 years of age inside, but CocoLoco's Café and Nightclub, the Colombian joint down the street on South University Drive, embraces all who wish to come through its doors.

Yes, my kids and I were turned away from Gatsby's on a recent Sunday evening. The manager pointed rather smugly -- despite a noticeable lack of diners in the place -- to the sign embossed on the front door that reads something like, "No one under 21 allowed." State officials tell me that restaurant and bar owners may set their own policies about such things. Obviously they are also required by law to deny service of alcohol to minors. But no Florida statute contravenes entrance to minors in a bar or restaurant where alcohol is consumed or dancing and DJs are par for the course.

Yet Gatsby's, which sells food, is not by strict definition a nightclub; ask the proprietors if the place is a club, and they'll shrug and say, "Sort of." So we're left with a kind of arbitrary, discriminatory reverse ageism, an injustice against which I have been railing since I was a teenager who loved dining out. Gatsby's, which opened just in time for summer break, should take note of the market here in Davie, which is chock full of bored teenagers and off-session college students with part-time-job incomes.

Davie teens don't necessarily have to worry, with fun spots like CocoLoco's around, where no one cares if you're 9, 19, or 90.

I concede that, after the humiliating experience at the door of Gatsby's, I was reluctant to check out CocoLoco's. Latin music, blasting inside, was easily audible in the parking lot. The restaurant is little more than an assortment of tables set up around a dance floor, DJ booth, and sizable bar, all illuminated by swirling disco lights. While Gatsby's acts like a nightclub but looks more like a restaurant and bar, CocoLoco's calls itself first a café but is clearly, even on a Sunday evening, a popular club.

Yet, for all the teenagers primping in the bathroom and the three-year-olds (one of whom was mine, and one of whom was a little girl who spoke only Spanish) holding hands and doing a far-too-sophisticated booty shake on the crowded dance floor, the fare asserts that this is far more than a nightclub. Though the exterior sign tags it as Mexican and Spanish, items such as the cazuela de mariscos (seafood stew) or the Sunday special sancocho de gallina (hen soup) are really South and Central American, with a distinct and wonderful Colombian influence.

For instance arepas, a Colombian staple, accompany many of the dishes, both appetizers and main courses alike. I've always found it amusing -- and regrettably true -- that South American Cooking author Barbara Karoff notes that arepas, "even at their best, are merely pleasant." Indeed, because these griddled cakes, slightly thicker than homemade tortillas, comprise only cornmeal (ground from precooked kernels), salt, and water, they have very little real flavor. But good ones, as these were, are light and crisp on the outside with a slight give to the interior and make excellent foils for more-zesty materials like the homemade chorizos we ordered as a starter. Unusually plump and meaty without being greasy, the pair of sausages offered plenty of savor to counter the arepas. Likewise the corn cake was a starchy balance to an appetizer of skewered chicken, onions, and peppers, great for sopping up the moist poultry's notable juices as well as the barbecue sauce served alongside.

As with arepas, appetizers like fried yuca might not seem very exciting. But the ones served at CocoLoco's were sweet rather than soapy and enhanced by a ramekin of freshly chopped guacamole. A main course of churrasco might not seem exotic either. But the pounded and grilled skirt steak was pepped up with a tangy, parsley-laden chimichurri. Other meat dishes include carne asada (grilled top round), chuleta frita (fried pork chops), and the filling bandeja paisa. This last entrée was a combination of very traditional foods -- stewed red beans, garlic-driven white rice, sweet plantains, a fried strip of salt pork, and a piece of steak topped with a fried egg. Though the steak itself was a mite tough, the crisp-edged egg gave it textural help, and the plump yolk added some rich flavor.

The region of Colombia most in evidence at CocoLoco's seems to be coastal, given the servings of white rice instead of potatoes (seen more often in the interior of the country) and the freshness of the pargo rojo frito, or deep-fried red snapper. This whole fish appeared to be browned to the point of being overcooked but in fact was just right, the flesh retaining its moisture and the skin offering batter-laced crunch. As far as seafood goes, the cazuela and the arroz con camarones are just about your only entrée options, while patacones rellenos con camarones are the single appetizer. We were delighted with this last item, little deep-fried baskets of plantain cuddling bay shrimp that had been sautéed with a generous dollop of minced garlic. Spoon on the aioli for extra punch.

The only real drawback to be noted about CocoLoco's, where service is polite and conducted by necessity with nods, finger-pointing, and other sign-language gestures, is the terrific volume of the music. But the noise level does drown out the crying of the young babies, oddly making for a supper that is at once raucous and peaceful. In the end, though entertaining, the thunderous Latin rhythms drove us to forgo the postres (dessert) course and strike out for home. And while I doubt I'll be returning to spoon ubiquitous flan into my kids' mouths, you can bet I'll be back for the pargo, not to mention the party, on a Saturday night when I have a baby sitter in the house.

As for Gatsby's, the over-21 policy might just fly very well at the place's original Boca Raton location, where, despite an influx of families, the population holds steady at an average age of, oh, about 50. But I will venture that, in the more familial Davie, Gatsby proprietors are likely to hear more than a bit of grumbling, particularly because they don't tell callers over the phone about the age requirement. While the owners of Gatsby's and other "sort-of" nightclubs like them are free to lay their own ground rules, I consider myself equally free to gripe about them. And though these business owners may think the policy spells class for the majority of clients who patronize the establishment, those of us who are left out in the heat might just want to call it class action.

Perhaps I do like being an American after all.