If La Zona is any indication as to what direction Fort Worth dining is trending, well, then I am starting to feel very old.
Because this Gen-Xer was slightly confounded about the shrine to Beyonce in the ladies’ room.
And I also couldn’t understand why, during a soft opening at this new Magnolia Avenue hangout, our server couldn’t answer basic questions about the food. Notably: She wasn’t sure if there was any type of hot sauce available (for the record — and to my disbelief — no); whether we could get cheese other than goat on the burger (yes, but it would be “thick”); why there was no kale in the kale Caesar chicken salad; and how come we couldn’t get the churros and hot chocolate we had been hearing about next door at Saint Sofia (“They’re served in the afternoons, as a snack”; since our visit, they’ve been available at night ).
But darn it, it was cold outside — and I was looking forward to a warm drink.
Lest you think you stumbled upon a review by a Grumpy Old Woman, soon all of these proved to be minor inconveniences at this weeks-old restaurant, and they were nothing that an excellent glass of red sangria ($9) couldn’t assuage. Crisp, refreshing, icy, and absolutely nothing like a hot cup of cocoa, the drink was surprisingly satisfying, studded with chunks of apples and plums.
At this point, after moving inside due to the cool weather, we were hungry, too.
The vibe: Think industrial ceilings married with Mexican tile and you have the idiosyncratic decor that is Hotel Madrid, which is actually the name of the restaurant. (La Zona applies to the entire experience, including a trip to Saint Sofia, a small lean-to next door.) Vibe-y electro jams play in the background against a backdrop of abstract-painted walls, a black-and-white checkerboard floor, at least one communal table and a Warhol-like installation (or would that be a bow to the original Kincaid’s?) with Campbell’s soup cans lining a wooden shelf above the entrance. The bar has all the haciendalike feels, and plays linchpin to the place’s dynamic.
The inside dining room is small, with just two other tables (a six-top and a four-top) in addition to the larger table, all of which feature the lightest/un-sturdiest of stools I’ve ever sat on; other seating, not of the stool variety, can be found outside, under the small porch and in the rock-strewn yard.
And did I mention that framed Instagram snaps of Queen Bey dutifully adorn the walls of the women’s restroom?
The food: Many of the appetizers were unavailable on the early weeknight we visited. No fried calamari for you! Also: the croquetas and queso frito were missing, as was an interesting-sounding cocktail called a Sangria Dali ($8), which cast Topo Chico in a starring role.
The red sangria sufficed, but my beer-leaning companion took note of the dearth of local craft-brew options on tap. He reluctantly ordered a Zeigenbock ($4.50).
Something more desirable was the huevos rotos ($7), a mound of thick-cut fries, studded with nubs of melty Jamon Serrano, topped with a fried egg and swimming in a lemony aioli. I wish the fries would have been a little crispier, and even a touch saltier, because the ham was MIA from most of the dish. Once the yolk dispersed over the mini-mountain and mixed with the other ingredients, however, all conversation came to a halt.
The chicken kale Caesar ($14), minus the kale, had romaine and arugula conspiring for greatness. It mostly succeeded, but again, I had hoped for more attention to detail. Why not a bit more of the pieces of Parmigiano, and less of the sourdough croutons? An arc of sliced white-meat chicken, cut on the bias and juicy, had the youngest — and hungriest — protein-eaters happy.
All the while, pizzas kept flying out of the kitchen, and we took pleasure in knowing that we had either 1) ordered the right thing or 2) were culinary lemmings.
Ten types are on the menu, from the modest basil-strewn margarita ($12) to a more unusual tuna (tuna, tomato, spinach, and mushroom; $14). We tried the La Calle, which was covered in a piquant arrabiata sauce, sliced Spanish meatballs and fresh mozzarella. The cheese, heavy and not fully melted, virtually annihilated the sauce, but the meatballs were tender and spicy.
There is also a nicely seasoned half-pound burger ($11), topped with a fried egg (naturally), and served on a toasted, dense bun, alongside the same undercooked, under-seasoned fries as in the rotos appetizer. But a grilled cheese (gouda, strawberry jam and prosciutto; $9) could beckon on a repeat visit.
The verdict: It’s no coincidence that La Zona is reminiscent of Americado, the Mexican restaurant that opened, threatened to close, and yet has persevered, on nearby West Berry Street. Both, from the same owner-triumvirate, are infused with creativity and a joie de vivre vigor, all of which should be commended. Give the food and service a bit more time to evolve at La Zona, and it’s certain to become one of Magnolia’s greatest hits.
Anna Caplan is a Fort Worth-based free-lance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @annadfwfood