La Cuchara

Guacamole and chips at La Cuchara in the West Loop (Hilary Higgins/RedEye / April 20, 2013)

La Cuchara
1521 W. Madison St. 312-291-9344
Rating: !! (out of four) Give it some time

What's a restaurant's website for if not to stoke your appetite? La Cuchara's definitely features some appealing claims that fueled my anticipation, but upon arrival, the real-life restaurant didn't quite live up. A location "perfectly nestled in Chicago's West Loop" is apparently PR speak for a strip mall neighboring Dunkin' Donuts and Subway. The bi-level space has two bars and a glassy facade with a prime view of ... the parking lot out front. It's described as "A Mexican Kitchen," but feels more like a slick sports bar, with all the screens and shiny surfaces. There were plenty of tables free last Friday night—good thing, because the host didn't have any record of the reservation I called in earlier. I settled into a second-floor table with friends, hoping that the food would make up for the underwhelming first impression.

Chips 'n' dip: I loved that La Cuchara's petite chips are sliced out of small tortillas, making each a one-dip, one-bite deal, but nothing kills my fiesta more than running out of guacamole ($7) with a pile of chips still left on the plate. The crock of queso fundido ($8.50; $10.50 with chorizo or mushrooms) at the next table over looked more generous.

Margaritas: The house margarita made with Frida Kahlo tequila, lime juice, orange liqueur and simple syrup was well-balanced, and the price ($9) is right for the big salt-rimmed goblet it comes in. Other flavors (all $9) include jalapeno, cucumber, tamarind, strawberry and, for dessert drink fans, chocolate-covered strawberry made with Tanteo cocoa tequila.

Beyond 'ritas: There's a full list of cocktails separate from the margaritas, including the Dream in Purple ($10) made with blanco tequila, lemon juice and Brazilian acai liqueur. It looked like sugary-sweet Hawaiian Punch but tasted fresh and tart. There's also a house-made michelada ($7) and a Oaxacan manhattan ($10) made with the before mentioned cocoa tequila and chocolate bitters ($10), plus a handful of other concoctions.

Tacos: The menu descriptions need some work, but the tacos ($3-$3.50 apiece) are tasty. The aquacate taco was stuffed with slices of ripe avocado, and though they weren't battered and fried ("bathed in beer and flour," per the description), it was still a refreshing vegetarian option. The plump shrimp in the camaron taco did manage to get their beer-battered breading, to delicious results. Both were drizzled with what I later found out was chipotle mayo rather than the "house salsa" mentioned on the menu. If you're concerned with specifics, maybe have another round of margaritas?

Beyond tacos: My pal called her veggie burrito ($9) "light," which is really just a nice way to say bland. Maybe we would have been better off going for one of the tortas, such as the pepito de filete ($7) with steak, guac, tomato, refried beans and chipotle mayo. Despite one too many newbie-restaurant snags (missing side dishes, drink mix-ups, a small bill snafu), the night ended on a sweet note with some of the best flan ($4) I've had lately—and that includes a trip to Mexico earlier this year. Though I doubt La Cuchara will ever become a dining destination like so many of its West Loop brethren, with some time to work out the kinks, it has the potential to be a decent neighborhood hang. --LA

Reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. redeye@tribune.com | @redeyeeatdrink

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