Flavor: Pell-mell preparations of pan-Latin ingredients
Ambiance: High-wattage little cafe
On a recent visit to Chorizo, our server had us all aglow with excitement about chocolate-milk fritters. We eagerly placed our order, anticipating the interplay of warm, crispy fritters with a silky milk sauce. Chorizo offers just one dessert each evening, and we spent the short time awaiting its arrival congratulating ourselves on having the good sense to dine on chocolate-milk-fritter night.
But we never got our fritters. Another server delivered a plate of sautéed grape crepes spackled with almond paste to our table without explanation. Presumably, our server had described the previous day’s feature.
Our server wasn’t the only one befuddled by the ever-changing menu: On visit after visit, servers confidently offered descriptions that were at odds with the menu, and sometimes with the actual dishes. They re-imagined pan-seared fish as oven-baked, and glibly revised seasonings and sides. They scratched their heads over specials and punted pointed questions about ingredients.
But I can’t blame the servers. Sometimes Hector Diaz’s cooking just isn’t server-friendly. He packs his plates with ingredients, and then suddenly sweeps them off the menu, or—in a move even more tricky for the already memory-taxed server—jumbles them together, blending a pork preparation with a beef dish. That’s a boon for the diner but an ordeal for the server: On one night, our server had become so rattled that he assured us the bar didn’t stock bourbon, although a tall bottle of Maker’s Mark was one of fewer than a dozen bottles on display, just 15 feet from our table.
Fortunately, it doesn’t much matter what you order at Chorizo, a close cousin to Diaz’s flagship restaurant, Salsa. While other chefs assemble their dishes with the precision of a pointillist, Diaz’s process is more like finger painting from a palette of about 20 favorite ingredients. He smears together cilantro, beans, chocolate, avocado, yuccas and sausage in all sorts of combinations. Like most modern art, either you like it or you don’t, but the creator’s skill is unassailable.
Chorizo opened earlier this year in a Grove Arcade space just two doors down from Modesto, Diaz’s recent venture into Italian cookery. The kitchens apparently share a few ingredients, and, on slow nights, servers wander back and forth on the short strip of sidewalk between the two restaurants. But physical distance aside, Chorizo is worlds away from Modesto, whose first months were fraught with missteps. Its menu—in all its guises—assuredly celebrates the Latin flavors on which Diaz, labeled the “Emeril of Asheville” by the New York Times, built his empire.
Diaz has made space for a few obligatory dishes on his menu, all of which are well-executed, from the huevos rancheros at breakfast (good enough that the servers, obviously relieved to have an lifebuoy to which they can cling, urge it on lunch guests) to dinner’s guacamole. The guacamole, assembled tableside from three plump avocados, is a mash of cilantro, onions, jalapenos, salt and pepper—all adjusted to the diner’s taste. It’s about as simple as things get in this cozy—if sometimes noisy—tin-ceilinged eatery.
The simplest dishes on Chorizo’s menu are among the best, including a knockout take on rice and beans that surfaces at lunchtime. But forays into the restaurant’s signature fusion cuisine can be doubly rewarding, as an appetizer that paired chocolate with calamari proved.
Usually when American chefs start messing around with chocolate, they use a bitter chocolate that imparts richness without sweetness. But here the ringlets of ivory-hued calamari were bathed with an achingly sweet chocolate-cream sauce that had one of my guests, a former high-school footballer, reminiscing about cold nights spent on the bench, clasping a Styrofoam cup of concession-stand hot chocolate. The dish worked because the perfectly cooked calamari carried the savory banner high, providing a harmonizing seaborne flavor and contrasting chewy texture.
Other appetizers at Chorizo include braids of anchovy, kalamata olive and roasted red peppers knotted into salty finger food, and a severed crab-cake plate that features a grainy black-bean cake alongside a heap of mayonnaisey lump crab, garnished with a red-pepper coulis and a grass-green cilantro sauce.
Befitting for a restaurant founded by the fellow who pioneered Zambra’s tapas menu, the best way to experience Chorizo might very well be to stick to appetizers and drinks—the bartender mixes a mean mojito and a gorgeous golden margarita. Entrées tended to be more uneven, and, since much of the cooking is geared toward an initial wow, trickier to sustain.
Still, all of the entrées I sampled were satisfactory, from a mocha-doused duck perched on a tapestry of spicy chorizo sausage, beans and greens, to a bold steak-and-egg plate that transformed its breakfast ingredients into dinnertime fare. Only a bluefish special fell well short of its mark, with the starring fish subsumed by a bowlful of lentil stew.
Many of the dishes could have been improved by a dollop of goat cheese, or other dairy product, but Diaz rarely dips into that food group. He instead focuses on his beloved fruits, seeds and meats, most of which are cooked to just the right temperature.
Chorizo’s pounded pork chop was slightly dry the night I tried it, but another pork dish showed why the restaurant is named for a pig product: A plate of chopped pork, hugged by slices of ripened avocado and chunks of plantains, was easily the best barbecue I’ve had in Western North Carolina. I stopped eating it only to stare at it in wonder: This dish could single-handedly change people’s opinions of Asheville’s smoked-meat scene. Diaz’ overburdened servers may very well lose track of what’s on the menu, but any diner lucky enough to taste this pork is likely to remember it forever.