A sopao is a thick Puerto Rican stew. I wish I could be more precise, but it's one of those dishes that seems to vary with every recipe: One requires andouille and Parmesan cheese, another peas and smoked ham. I'd say chicken, rice and tomatoes, at least, are a given, but then I'd probably get a half-dozen letters telling me otherwise. Even calling asopao a thick Puerto Rican stew might be too definitive. Sometimes it's described as a soup, sometimes as a gumbo. There are Cuban and Dominican versions, too.
At KoKo asopao is chicken, chorizo, green olives, capers, tomato and saffron served over rice. It's hearty nearly as thick as gumbo but the olives and capers give it a welcome salt-and-vinegar kick. Had I not been starving already (owing to a planning oversight that in a minute I'll try to pass off as a stroke of restaurant-reviewer genius), I still would have cleaned my plate.
Or tried to clean my plate. Just when I thought I'd defeated the asopao, our waiter returned to dish out more from the small cast-iron pot on our table. KoKo serves asopao and sancocho, a seafood stew, family-style. They are priced per person, with a minimum two-person order. At $28, asopao for two was a very generous serving.
Now, about that planning "oversight." This was my second visit to KoKo, which opened ten weeks ago on a modest stretch of Ivanhoe Avenue just south of Arsenal Street (in the space formerly occupied by Café Ivanhoe). I knew KoKo was small. The dining room seats maybe 40, with room for another dozen diners in the separate bar room. And I go to restaurants a lot, so I know showing up anywhere at eight on a Saturday evening without a reservation isn't smart.
Yet there I was, standing in KoKo's entryway just after eight on a Saturday, apologizing to the host for not having made a reservation.
I was testing KoKo's hospitality, of course. Or, you know, something like that. At any rate, the place passed the test. In fact, after my friends and I had been happily nursing beers at the bar for not very long, the host returned to apologize to us for not having a table ready yet. And while service throughout our meal seemed just a step behind the ideal pace for a busy Saturday, it was unfailingly friendly.
On a busy night KoKo had the casual vibe of a neighborhood joint. Loud, yes, but with chatter, not "buzz." On a quiet weekday evening, it felt more intimate romantic, even. The walls are the color of milk chocolate, there are fresh flowers on every table, and the lights are dim enough to flatter everyone but not so dim that you have to open your cell phone to read the menu.
KoKo boasts ample experience in both the front and back of the house. Owner Tim Nesbit is a veteran of the late Restaurant Space on the Hill; to create KoKo's menu he hired Dana Holland, who has consulted for several local restaurants since shuttering his Central West End restaurant Babalu. The menu Holland has devised for KoKo features pan-Latin and Creole dishes. This is familiar turf for him. Babalu served Caribbean dishes, and he consulted for Mirasol, where the food draws from a wide array of Latin American cuisines. At KoKo, however, pan-Latin is a bit of a misnomer. Most of the Latin American dishes come from nations north of the equator; most of those nations are Caribbean.
The asopao was my favorite among the Latin American selections, but the pot roast with a traditional Cuban seasoning of garlic, cumin and oregano was also very good. This was exceptionally tender, and though the Cuban seasoning deepened its savory notes, the secret here was simply a good hunk of beef cooked long enough for its succulent sweetness to emerge. A tomato, onion and red wine sauce brought the sweet and savory elements together and added a welcome tartness.
On the other hand, the succulent sweetness and spicing of ropa vieja vanished in the audacious but flawed entrée called "Beef and Beef." This was a filet (cooked medium-rare, in my case) on a bed of ropa vieja, topped with Spanish Cabrales cheese. Cabrales, a combination of cow's, sheep's and goat's milk (the proportions vary widely), is quite strong. It overwhelmed the filet from the first bite and had such a long, piquant finish that it eventually overpowered the ropa vieja, too.
Appetizers include three Latin American selections: mussels in a coconut-milk broth, salmon cured in coriander and rum, and guacamole with fried plantains. The guacamole was a tad heavy on the lime for my taste, though my fiancée, a self-described guacamole fiend, found no fault. Regardless, plantain chips are one of the world's great snack foods, and our plate was quickly emptied. The salmon think of it as gravlax with a Caribbean patois was excellent, imbued with a fresh citrus bite courtesy of the coriander.
Likewise, ginger and orange peel added pizzazz to a fine, sweet roasted-pumpkin bisque, one of two soups on the menu. The other was a gumbo much too thick to be termed a soup. "A cup of the best gumbo in St. Louis," our waiter said as he set it on our table. And it was good, so rich with andouille and shredded duck meat that the rice seemed superfluous.
That gumbo was the standout among KoKo's Creole dishes. There were fewer of these, and on the whole I liked them less. "Zydeco Fries," an appetizer, are white-cheddar grits battered with cornmeal and deep-fried. These are mild on their own (they reminded me, not unpleasantly, of fried tofu) but come with both a very tart green-tomato ketchup and a thick, roux-heavy gravy.
Shrimp and grits is Carolina low-country cooking not technically Creole but close in spirit so I was disappointed that KoKo's version was merely mediocre, with bland shrimp and "grits" that were far too solid, more like polenta. In contrast, the fried chicken was terrific, with crisp, crunchy buttermilk-battered skin and exceptionally tender, juicy meat.
The fried chicken was served with mashed potatoes. Not really a pairing you can dispute. But mashed potatoes also accompanied the pot roast and the "Beef and Beef." According to the menu, unless otherwise noted, every entrée comes with the chef's choice of a starch and a vegetable. On my first visit, the vegetable was grilled asparagus (the fattest stalks I've ever seen). On my second, the vegetable was limp, flavorless broccoli.
That got me thinking about St. Louis' other two pan-Latin restaurants, Mirasol and Wapango. KoKo is closer in size to Mirasol you could fit a dozen KoKos inside Wapango but menu-wise Wapango is the more apt comparison. Entrées there more or less follow the usual meat-starch-and-vegetable format, but you're likely to have quinoa or potatoes whipped with yucca root or even just rice and black beans. You're immersed in the cuisine, not just introduced to it.
Which is why KoKo's asopao was such a success. Not only was it very good it was a discovery. And while I like mashed potatoes as much as the next red-blooded American, I can't help but wonder, in a category of cuisines as vast and varied as Latin American not to mention Creole what else is waiting to be discovered.
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