Keeping the Spark Alive

Monica Parpal, Maya Silver, and Jeffrey Steen |
Food And Dining

It's happy hour on a weekday, and the deck at Lola Mexican Fish House is buzzing with lively conversation and clinking margarita glasses. Now in its 11th year, Lola still draws a crowd. How do they do it?

With fresh, exciting new restaurants and bars popping up every day (and the hidden Denver skyline to prove it), longstanding restaurants like Lola are constantly challenged to stay current. For Lola—a member of the Boulder-based Big Red F Restaurant Group—that meant hanging on to essential aspects of their identity while updating with fresh décor, fresh talent, and even fresher ingredients. This is all part of the master plan to keep Lola relevant, according to Big Red F Culinary Director, Jamey Fader.

CHEF

Naturally, a big part of this revitalization focuses on the kitchen. When the chef de cuisine position became available in April, Fader knew he needed someone with rockstar talent to take over. “I wanted a lead singer. Someone who wanted to be world-famous. A big ego was necessary,” Fader says. He found it in Chef Kevin Grossi, a Michigan native who—after stints at Wynkoop, Tamayo, and Parisi—had already been a grill cook at Lola before moving up to sous chef. Fader mentored him at Lola before seeing him off to the executive chef position at Jax Fort Collins, where Grossi worked for three years while learning all about sustainable seafood procurement and local farms.

“It’s cool being in the other half of Big Red F,” Grossi says. I get to meld Jax Kitchen’s seafood aspects—like oysters—with Lola's Latin cuisine. It’s the best of both worlds.”

FOOD

One of the first things Grossi undertook when he started was a flight of fresh new salsas. “Salsas are a sensitive subject here,” Grossi admits. Fader already had a menu of salsas, and questioned Grossi's desire to create a really good fruit salsa.

Yet, Grossi debuted with a Pickled Habanero and Mango Salsa, made with diced mangoes, smoky serranos, and a good amount of heat—which, Fader admits, is delicious. It's perfect for patio noshing or pairing with pork. Along with that came his Salsa Verde with tomatillos and parsley, and his Blackened Tomato Salsa with green garlic and cumin. Grossi talks about creating more salsas using strawberries, blueberries, and boysenberries—another playful jab at his mentor.

Each salsa was intended to pair well with other dishes on the menu, which have also been revamped and re-inspired. Grossi designed the Peas & Carrots, for example, to honor seasonal veggies in a lettuce-less salad of pepitas, Broken Shovels chèvre, sweet and spicy tortilla, and hot cumin vinaigrette. His main dishes include the slow-roasted Pork Shoulder with ancho chiles, cumin, and cinnamon, served with slow-cooked Vidalia onions and that Pickled Mango Salsa. The Baja-Style Whole Fish draws attention with a crispy fried gulf snapper engulfing finger-licking-good fish fritters, served with salsa fresca and jalapeño tartar sauce.

BAR

Bar Manager Andy Owens has led Lola's cocktail efforts for over a year, focusing on well-balanced, “crushable” tequila-focused beverages. And part of the summer revival is to remind people that they can have fun here.

“We do a lot of nightly specials, and we have a lot of regulars,” Owens says. “It's all about the vibe, about making this a place where people can hang out and socialize.”

In the name of fun, Owens brought several approachable, delicious new cocktails to the bar this summer, including the smoky-sweet Small Batch Swindler, made with Leopold Bros. small batch whiskey, grilled lemon-ginger syrup, seared lemon, and a splash of soda. Then there's the deceptively simple La Sandia, a watermelon, habanero, lime, and Cazadores Reposado sipper, served in a glass rimmed with housemade citrus chile-lime salt, made using 12 different spices. And longtime Lola lovers are happy to know that staples like the Fuego Verde (Corazon Blanco, muddled jalapeño, and cilantro) and the Q Coin (El Tesoro Platinum with muddled cucumber and fresh citrus) aren't going anywhere.

PASTRY

Any great meal deserves a little something sweet at the end. Luckily, Pastry Chef Xan (that's short for Alexander) Lynch is here to make Lola that much more loveable.

Interestingly, Lynch prefers desserts that aren't overly sweet, focusing instead on layering sweet and salty flavors to get the most out of every ingredient. Take, for example, his Almond Cake with grilled apricots, blueberry compote, blueberry goat cheese, and Marcona almonds. It's well-balanced, beautifully composed, and satisfying to sweet and savory taste buds alike—and it's gluten-free. For those who yearn for something sweeter, the Choco Taco with salted Oreo ice cream is a definite crowd-pleaser. And speaking of ice cream, many Lola-goers find themselves strolling to Little Man Ice Cream after their meal for a nostalgic scoop from a giant milk can. Fun, but before you go anywhere, consider Lynch's Ice Cream Sandwich. It's a perfectly portable scoop of salted caramel (sourced from Little Man itself) sandwiched between soft and chewy snicker doodle cookies. Lynch calls it his “walkable dessert,” perfect for taking away and enjoying during your post-Lola stroll-uh.

It's not every day that we are reminded of the great things happening at the more seasoned restaurants in our city. With a solid identity, fresh talent, and undying dedication to their craft, the folks at Lola are sure to be around for 11 more years … and counting.

Learn more about what Lola Mexican Fish House is up to at loladenver.com, or stop by for a meal at 1575 Boulder Street in the Denver Highlands.