Sometimes street food is best left to the street.
That’s how I’ve felt about elote, or Mexican street corn, until Zócalo changed my mind. At this impressive Mexican restaurant in Old Metairie, I should have seen it coming. The style here is rarely by the book.
Elote is essentially corn on the cob, grilled and dressed up with as many toppings as a plate of nachos, all coated in streaks of mayo and crumbled farmers cheese and blasts of chili powder over the darkened kernels.
Sounds good, usually is good and, as the street corn name implies, it's great for a quick snack when you’re on the go. But in New Orleans, as elsewhere, street corn has become a restaurant item. Off the street, it’s overblown as an appetizer, losing its easy, drippy, messy-but-good appeal. Cut from the cob into a dish, as it's sometimes prepared, it's just a glorified picnic-style side.
Zócalo though, serves elote as “ribs” and has come up with an offbeat dish that feels like a proper first course. The corn is sliced into long bands with just enough cob along the base to hold it together. On the grill they pick up a toasty, warm, sweet flavor and that about-to-pop texture. The strips bend into sinuous curls, like octopus.
On goes the chili powder, the cojita cheese crumbles, the lime and mayonnaise with an aromatic, herbal hit of epazote. It's a striking dish with wow factor and a practical advantage — it’s easy to share around the table as an appetizer.
Since opening last spring, Zócalo has been gradually evolving its approach as a modern Mexican restaurant. It can field a taco Tuesday special with the best of them (that is, $2 tacos). But it also carries the upscale casual vibe of its stylish Old Metairie dining room across the menu, for dishes that would be more at home at a bistro than a cantina.
Order the huachinango, a beautiful slab of red snapper, and you get tender fish heady with adobo spice and the contrasting bright crunch of citrus and jicama. The vegetarian cauliflower tacos crackle with fried quinoa, in a meatless approximation of chicharrons.
Zócalo was developed by chef Edgar Caro and Antonio Mata, who have turned this block of Metairie Road into a showcase for Latin culinary style. Just a few doors down, they opened the South American-style steakhouse Brasa a year earlier.
Zócalo is named for the central square of Mexico City, the civic heart of the vast metropolis, and it's a term used for the squares in smaller towns around Mexico. At this Zócalo, the curving bar, with its floor of colorful Talavera tiles, has the feel of a neighborhood watering hole. The dining room is often bustling and loud but the deep booths in back are good for groups or to corral a family.
The restaurant took over the former home of Vega Tapas Café, which closed in 2017 after two decades in business. It was the restaurant that introduced many locals to Spanish tapas. Zócalo is making new introductions to its own riffs on Mexican flavor. As the elote demonstrates, it’s worth taking a seat for a closer look.
2051 Metairie Road, (504) 570-6338
Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday
Happy hour Monday to Friday, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Like any proud cook, Iris Cardona gets a thrill when people tell her they like her food.
Note: Try This Dish is a periodic series on interesting dishes around the New Orleans area and the stories, restaurants and people around them.
Peter Nguyen had a big idea for the little storefront next to his family’s Texaco station in Metairie, but his mother, Mary, didn’t think much of it.