Hidden beneath the Four Seasons hotel in the upmarket Galleria Mall you’ll find Loca. Marked by an unmistakable logo of vibrant green, above which you’ll find the question posed “Are you Loca?”
Having opened to award winning success in Dubai in 2009, Loca proclaims to be a new concept in Mexican dining and one that’s been severely lacking in the capital. Residents of Abu Dhabi have long struggled to find a spot serving quality Mexican Cuisine, with the majority of outlets being take away only or restricted to the confines of a shopping mall. Meaning one all important factor is missing… the alcohol! Without ice cold beers, tequila and frozen margaritas, does it really constitute a Mexican restaurant?
Loca’s third UAE opening (following two existing outlets at Dubai Marine Beach Resort and Souk Al Bahar) marks the companies biggest venue at a more than generous 9,536ft2. Loca 3.0 is certainly adhering to the old mantra ‘go big or go home’ but is this all too common trend of having gigantic restaurant spaces to fill such a good idea in the current economic climate? Judging by the turn-out at Loca’s first ladies night last Wednesday the answer is a resounding YES! Despite the awful weather, the offer of free margaritas was more than enough to draw a huge crowd and imminent buzz.
Aside from a couple of spiky cacti standing tall at the entrance, Loca sensibly decides against Mexican stereotypes. You won’t find piñata’s or maracas here instead, the look is strictly ‘urban industrial.’ Exposed brickwork and shiny silver pipes feature heavily, while a spacious bar under lit in electric red fills the center of the room, with tables fanning out around its circumference. An appealing terrace is where you’ll likely find the majority of guests, offering views of the twinkling city lights across Al Maryah Island picturesque waterfront.
It must be said that authentic Mexican food is a little scarce is Abu Dhabi (aside from the strictly casual Barbacoa and relative newcomer Little Mexico). All too often Tex-Mex is misconstrued as authentic Mexican food and the team at Loca looks to break the mold with their traditional offerings from the heart of Latin America.
Loca has been marketed as a sports bar but aside from a few subtle screens placed on the back wall, it feels more like a casual cocktail bar as opposed to a sporting venue. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as sports bars hold the connotation of being down and dirty places, a description with which Loca cannot be compared.
Margaritas flow freely and are offered both frozen and on the rocks, in a variety of tropical flavors (kiwi, lime, strawberry, mango, and pomegranate) though seem to vary in strength depending on who’s tending the bar. A selection of beers and wine is also offered but a lack of Mexican choices is a missed opportunity. This may be due to Loca’s relationship with Dutch beer brand Heineken, whose ‘Heineken Extreme Draught’ brings the beer tap to the table, offering guests the ability to share a perfectly chilled keg.
Our meal begins with Loca Guacamole prepared at the table. A variety of options are available – spicy, chunky, smooth – all served with warm corn tortillas. We don’t think you’ll be disappointed for it’s a very good guacamole, though we did find the heat slightly lacking in our spicy choice.
The appetizers cover all the expected favorites with the Loca Quesadillas being of particular note, stuffed to bursting point with a flavorsome chipotle chicken mix. Flavour is a big factor when it comes to Mexican cuisine and each dish to the table leaves an impression, with the kingfish, crab, pimento and rice of the Flautas De Mariscos making a mark, indicative of Mexican executive chef Juan Flores’ traditional flavors. A sweet Ceviche De Pescado finds its way onto the carb-heavy menu, throwing papaya, mango and orange into the mix – unconventional perhaps but delicious all the same.
When it comes to main courses we select the Carne Asada Burrito. It may be another meat stuffed tortilla, albeit one coated in ranchero sauce but we’re happy with the choice. A sizzling plate of Loca’s Ribs coated in tomatilla and chili sauce are slow cooked and delicious but again we find the ‘heat’ of the dish slightly lacking.
The set menu we dine from is notably absent of our favorite churros and they’re sorely missed. Unfortunately, the desserts which should be the spectacular finale to any meal, are a little underwhelming. A slice of Bedel Tres Leches is upstaged by its accompanying chocolate ice cream and the texture of the cake itself resembles one of those aerated disappointments that are all too common on a brunch dessert buffet. The flavor is present but doesn’t prevail in strength. Banana Empanadas fare much better, providing a warm pocket of sweetness that despite being fried, show little signs of oil. Coated in cinnamon sugar and served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream it’s a smart inclusion on the menu.
Make no mistake, Loca is not a fine dining establishment, though the prices may indicate otherwise. Dishes such as Jalapeño Locas (jalapeños filled with cheese and rolled in crushed tortillas) fall firmly into the causal category and there are times when the food feels somewhat secondary to the alcohol being consumed. That being said the concept is one that desperately required in this city and one that is likely to please the majority.
Living La Vida Loca (we couldn’t resist) joins a slew of new restaurants in Galleria Mall, including Roberto’s, Nusr-Et (#SaltBae) and the soon to open Coya. While Loca may be more casual that the aforementioned brands it’s already causing quite a stir on the capital’s dining scene and rightly so.
We were invited to dine at Loca. All views are our own and all photographs are © Out & About UAE. Cover image used courtesy of Loca.