Cafe Reviews

Gallo Blanco Café at The Clarendon Kicks Up the Taco Shop With Cochinita Tortas and Fresh Crepes

When I called Doug Robson, chef-owner of the fantastic new Gallo Blanco Café at the Clarendon Hotel, I almost expected him to ask me not to write about his restaurant.

"I wanna be just kind of quiet about it," he said, pausing to take a deep breath before talking to me in a hushed, hesitant voice. "You know, it is what it is — simple food. Tacos are just something we eat every day in Mexico."

Wow. If I could eat like this every day, I would, too.

To be sure, the food at Gallo Blanco is casual and unpretentious, with dirt-cheap prices to match. What isn't obvious until you taste it, though, is the thoughtful preparation and great ingredients that make it so addicting.

Robson's big on local purveyors — The Meat Shop for pork that he transforms into scrumptious, slow-roasted cochinita pibil, Schreiner's for excellent chorizo, and La Sonorense for fragrant, fluffy telera bread and fresh masa. And while he does keep things simple, he doesn't overlook the details that elevate the dining experience. From made-to-order tortillas to charred tomato Bloody Marys, everything gets a little extra oomph.

A native of Mexico City, Robson tells me the menu was inspired by his upbringing — dishes his mom used to make, dishes he's been cooking for himself for years. After cooking contemporary American cuisine under notable chefs such as Robert McGrath and Michael DeMaria, and creating some of La Grande Orange's most popular items as its founding executive chef, he eventually made time to write down his Mexican recipes and plan a restaurant of his own.

Gallo Blanco Café strikes me as a very favorable development for the Clarendon Hotel, which was converted into a hip boutique hotel several years ago. Known for its pool and its rooftop parties, the Clarendon deserves a happening cafe. But after the high-style Camus closed its doors a couple of years ago, the in-house restaurant space never really recaptured its mojo, with a short-lived Japanese concept followed by a Mexican joint that merely fed hotel guests and never made it onto the radar of locals who'd made Camus so vibrant. Luckily, the neighborhood has already embraced this place, and it's been open only a month.

The atmosphere is much more welcoming now — they've knocked down interior walls that used to separate the hotel lobby from the bar area, and the bar from the dining room. There's an open kitchen, too. Caramel-colored leather chairs, handsome wooden tables built by Robson, quirky artwork, and a well-curated indie-rock soundtrack give it a distinctive personality that's unexpected in a hotel, even a boutique one.

Meanwhile, the restaurant name reflects a sense of humor: "white rooster" is slang for "white dude," Robson says. Apparently, folks are surprised when they learn that he's Mexican.

At night, when things were lit up just so and the margaritas started to flow, Gallo Blanco felt like it was plucked right out of a much bigger metropolis. Drinks were noteworthy, from lime-kissed watermelon agua fresca to affordable wines by the glass or bottle. The Picoso cocktail, made with tequila and fruit, had a craveable jalapeño kick, while the white sangria was full of juicy peaches, grapes, and apple. And homemade horchata, a cinnamon-tinged rice drink, was refreshing, not overbearingly sweet.

Grilled dishes comprised the highlights, including a citrus-marinated half-chicken, bursting with juices under its crispy skin; a deliciously seasoned 12-ounce "Nueva York" steak laden with grilled mushrooms, sweet onions, and whole scallions; and a market fish. On the day I ordered it, it was succulent halibut lightly brushed with olive oil, with a pile of zucchini, corn, and onions on the side.

Funny, they also had a cheeseburger on the menu — I suppose to keep the hotel guests happy. No, thanks, I'll take Gallo Blanco's cochinita torta, a pork sandwich straight out of my hedonistic dreams. Marinated in a pungent mix of achiote, garlic, orange, and guajillo, the tender pork was chopped up with crispy skin, sizzled fat, and sweet bits of pineapple that accented it like candy. Creamy avocado, fresh cilantro, and shredded lettuce provided a cool contrast to the hot, spicy meat, and the soft telera bun could barely contain all of it. I'm obsessed.

Cochinita was also available in taco form — that is, tiny street tacos made with freshly griddled tortillas. It's easy to down three or four of these. You could also do tacos or tortas filled with carne asada, grilled fish, or veggies. Of course, I had to try all of them, and was particularly impressed with the charred tomato salsa on the buttery chunks of grilled rib eye, and the chunky guacamole topping the fish.

Beyond the meaty stuff, there were two chopped salads that I'd gladly order again, perhaps with a taco or two. "House salad" was a deceptively humble name for a mix of Romaine, tomato, pumpkin seeds, cucumber, jicama, cotija cheese, tortilla strips, and chunks of orange, brightened with tangy-sweet herb vinaigrette. And Ensalada Cortada was an even more whimsical combination, with kale, red and white cabbage, Manchego cheese, crunchy peas and corn nuts, avocado, tomato, egg, and ranch dressing.

Chicharron de Queso made a fun, unusual snack. It was basically a thin layer of cheese cooked into a golden disc that was folded into a cylinder and presented upright (though slightly lopsided) on a plate. My dining companion and I instinctively tore the thing apart and dunked the chewy, crispy pieces in spicy aji aioli, not knowing when to stop. Grilled corn was awesome, too — sweet, smothered in cotija crumbles, and sprinkled with smoked paprika.

Gallo Blanco also serves breakfast, and a filling one at that — how about a torta packed with scrambed eggs, avocado, and chorizo, or an eggs-and-chorizo plate teamed with creamy refried beans and a stack of hot tortillas? At the moment, I'm dreaming of the spicy huevos rancheros, chased with a shot of espresso and sweetened condensed milk.

Nobody ever orders dessert with breakfast, but my favorite dulce on the Gallo Blanco menu also happens to be available all day: crepas con cajeta. That is, fresh crepes topped with sliced bananas, heady caramel sauce, and whipped crema fresca, which added the perfect tangy complexity to an otherwise sweet concoction. So, so good.

For something decadent after dinner, I liked the thick chocolate pudding with shards of graham cracker and a dollop of homemade marshmallow fluff. And mixed fresh fruit topped with whipped crema fresca tasted like something I could snack on anytime.

Usually, it only takes one really good dish to lure me back to a restaurant. Gallo Blanco's so tasty I might just have to check into the Clarendon.