REVIEW: Lola's Tapas (800 E Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ)
My first ever review so please tell me what you think.
From the outside it doesn't look like much more than a hole in the wall restaurant in an area with many. I will admit that the sign reading "Lola's Tapas" has always caught our eye on the numerous occasions that we have passed it. Given the many good reviews, we figured it was time we tried it.
We enter the south-facing door to this one time house converted to restaurant and feel very comfortable in the lively, upbeat, and friendly yet tight quarters. The room is filled with lively patrons having far to great a time to notice the people coming in and out of the front door. Immediately greeted by a smile and welcome we are taken to available seating. The room is small and full, but not crowded or stuffy. The decor is punctuated by warm and dark colors and wood, with a youthful and eclectic "hip" vibe that somehow manages to speak Spanish. The seating is divided between higher bar type seating (not in front of a bar) and picnic bench type tables. Being asked if we would like to sit across from each other or next to each other Samantha quickly opted for the latter. Which turned out to be a great choice. The friendly couple in their fifties sitting across from us greated us with a smile and gave evidence to another asset of this place. The seating really does invite an open and easy setting and, provided your neighbors are friendly, adds a wonderful dynamic to this place. A little small talk with them and before we new it our server was handing us menus and a wine list and reassuring us she would get us a water and give us time to figure out our drinks.
The wine list was interesting, different, with a noticeably smart approach. All of the selections being from Spanish influenced wine regions and mostly Spanish grape varietals. A real wine person is loving this fun list of choices. Samantha having heard the hype about their Sangria ordered that and I had a glass of Guelbenzu Azul 2005 –Ribera del Queiles. Fresh baked rustic bread arrives with our drinks. Samantha’s Sangria lives up the hype (best I’ve ever had). My wine on the nose had red fruit, plum, herbs, and spice. Rich and accessible, was an easy drinker with its rich forward fruit and limited if not non-existent tannin. However, there were lots of herb, spice, and anise flavors that added wonderful points of interest that kept my glass tilted. Not knowing this maker, if I had to guess would say I’m 97% sure this wine is predominantly Tempranillo.
The menu is labeled “Spanish small plates to share”, which by definition is tapas. Suddenly the ambiance makes so much more sense. The atmosphere expressly stating share food, share drinks (Sangria by the pitcher), share words, laughs, and good times. A list of nine or ten very tough choices appears on the one page menu. With each choice being moderately priced between 4 and 15 dollars the tough choices are made easy, because if you really wanted to, and had enough time to, you could try them all. We started with a plate of the Gambas al Pil-Pil. Quickly arriving at our table is a beautifully designed plate of perfectly sauted shrimp swimming in a garlic, cumin and sherry sauce. The sauce is divine, well balanced flavors of smoky cumin, butter, garlic, maybe a little cream?, a little red chili for heat (If you don’t like hot you will still love this), and the perfect addition of sweet on the finish from the sherry. Light and elegant, the plate was cleaned with our bread, which I found took to all of the flavors of the evening as if on purpose.
The second course was one of the two specials, the jerk chicken. Cooked and spiced to perfection, the chicken is moist and flavorful. The jerk marinade explodes on your palate, but doesn’t overwhelm the natural flavor of the meat. It rests atop a bed of black bean puree, which is prepared in a very understated way. The beans on their own may seem bland and boring. However, given its purpose on the plate the dish is better for having it there. The soft earthy flavors and textures balance the pop and flare of the potent and juicy chicken. The plate is drizzled with what I believe was a balsamic reduction. And the perfect bit containing all three components was a treat for the taste buds.
Not knowing how large these “plates to share” would be we aired on the side of caution and started with just these first two dishes. Having been impressed so far, having room for more and many wonderful choices on the menu, we dive into course three Garbanzos con Espinacas a la Andaluza. A simple dish consisting of chickpeas and spinach, and topped with toasted bread crumbs (I’m assuming the same bread we had already killed to plates of). This dish is a must try for any spinach lovers and with spinach being a close second to collard greens on the veggie chain of command, I was sold. The earthy notes in the garbanzos and the firm texture played nicely with the softer garden and butter flavors of the spinach. The toasted crumbs where a necessity, adding a crunch and really melding the flavors on the plate. Very simple home style dish that I found to be an interesting and more traditional contrast to its more playful counter parts.
Lastly of course is dessert. The offering of the evening was Cheesecake Flan. Not being the biggest flan fan in the world, the name was slightly discouraging. However, with recent memory’s residual effects still firmly planted on my palate and my mind, I put my faith in the hands of our (so far this evening) flawless chef and let it ride. The dish arrives and looks to be something quite closely resembling flan. Whiter in color and creamier in appearance, it didn’t have that gelatinous slightly translucent textural thing that is really behind my dislike of the quirky Mexican dessert. Imagine someone taking all of the bad qualities of flan and trading them for all of the good qualities of cheesecake and this is the wonderful creation that sat before us. Heavenly is the word that comes to mind. Guess what, I love this FLAN.
The tab comes with no sense of urgency and no push to the door. The nights culinary trip came to the tune of $60.00 leaving me feeling as if the food were stolen and we should tip the chef’s and owner of this perfect little hole in the wall. In hindsight this place embodies why I don’t eat at Olive Garden or Macaroni Grill and as long as people continue to embrace the emergence of these little family owner places popping up around the valley, I may never have to again.
800 E Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85014