Dreaming of Grits and Chile at ZoCaLo

Zocalo’s website informs you that their name is a Spanish colloquialism meaning “center of town.” The restaurant is truly well-centered on the Downtown Mall between the Paramount Theater and Petit Pois, and its creative menu and constant crowd definitely make it a social hub. Shaun and I have been stopping in here for appetizers and drinks for the past few years, but never sat down for a full dinner until last night [check that off the bucket list!].

We started with some appetizers and drinks. I got the mezcal old-fashioned, made with tequila, mezcal [a smoky liquor from an agave plant], and chili-infused bitters.

pink and smoky.

This is one of the drinks that tops my short list in C’Ville. It’s a great twist on the traditional old fashioned: subbing out a sweet sugar cube and cherries for agave liquor and infusing the bitters with spice. Erin had a blood orange mojito, made with fresh mint and lime.

Our entrees were out-of-this world. The creativity and uniqueness of each dish was hard to ignore, mostly because the flavors smacked you in the face. Insane flavors.

For me, a dish I’ve been dying to try for years: the Black Bean & Corn Relleno.

oh my god.

If you can’t tell, I love smoky flavors – smoked gazpacho, smoked pumpkin chili, smoked beer, you name it. This dish was everything I could ever ask for: smoked tomato grits, smoked salsa, and cilantro honey drizzled around the plate. I’m not sure what spices covered the corn flour shell around the pepper [“relleno” is a stuffed pepper], but the crunchy shell was perfectly cooked and ridiculously crunchy. The relleno was filled with creamy black beans and corn. Ugh. I don’t know why I waited so long to try this. It’s one of the best vegetarian entrees I’ve had to-date in this city. The title of the post is no joke, I dreamt about this meal last night.

Erin and Shaun’s meals were equally as awesome. Erin had the Chili Dusted Sea Scallops. They sliced like butter, and were drizzled with a carrot-vanilla sauce. You read that right, carrot & vanilla. This was so delicious and so unique.

scallops on the right.

Shaun’s dish, which I didn’t snap a photo of [I only brought my cell phone camera to dinner] was sort of like a Thanksgiving feast. The Seared Duck Breast came as rare as the kitchen would allow, covered with a chipotle compote that was filled with red and golden raisins. Zocalo seems to love the sweet and spicy combination. I don’t blame them. The duck was served with swiss chard and a manchego & caramelized onion bread pudding which oh my god did I have a bite of.

I  paired a glass of 2008 Chilean Chardonnay with my entree, Erin tried the Capirinha, a Brazilian cocktail made with lime, sugar and cachaca [sugar cane rum], and Shaun had some Bell’s beer [he’s on a kick].

I think we all struggled with finding a balance between wanting our food in our mouths immediately and desperately trying to savor each bite. Literally everything about dinner was perfect. The service was great, and we had a fun time chatting with other customers, shamelessly ogling each other’s dishes and then sharing our thoughts. I can’t wait to go back *cough* next weekend *hint hint*.

In a conversation with a bartender at another Downtown Mall restaurant, I was informed that he thought ZoCaLo would struggle with the opening of Commonwealth across the street [because they both have Latin American-inspired dishes]. I can’t speak for Commonwealth’s menu because I haven’t been there yet, but I think that ZoCaLo fills a niche for beautiful, creative, flavor-infused dishes in a way that means it will be sticking around for a long time. I know I keep using the word unique, but it’s one of the best words to describe this restaurant. There’s nothing else like it in C’Ville.


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Categories: C-Ville, Food


Courtney grew up in Reading, PA, and has lived in New York City (where she earned a bachelor's degree at NYU), Prague, Philadelphia, and Charlottesville (where she received a J.D. from UVa Law). Courtney and her new husband will settle in Philadelphia following a six-week Euro-trip extravaganza in September of 2012. Courtney's interests include music, writing, criticism, fitness, travel, cooking, and sports. Please enjoy the blog. LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/courtney-marello/1a/375/b30 Tumblr: http://abarrelofoddsandends.tumblr.com/


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  1. 2011 Roundup: The Best New Finds [Food] | Ryes and 'Shine - December 24, 2011

    […] Vegetarian Dish: I dream about the vegetarian chile relleno from Zocalo in Charlottesville. I legitimately have dreams about it. Its stuffed with black beans […]

  2. How We Spent Other People’s Money | Ryes and 'Shine - April 16, 2012

    […] photo of the Relleno before I dove in, but I didn’t. You’re welcome to refer back to this post if you want to see another blurry iPhone photo of it. IT DOES NOT DO THIS MEAL JUSTICE. MEAT LOVERS […]

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