Zocalo, a new Mexican restaurant located in The Shops at Ithaca mall, has been receiving rave reviews since its debut earlier this year.

As I embark on writing this particular review, I think it would be helpful to share with you that that in the decades I have lived in Ithaca, I have never visited what is now known as The Shops at Ithaca Mall. I simply don’t like shopping. If someone I’m spending time with wants to shop, I summon all my creative juices in an effort to find an appropriate excuse not to go.

However, about two months ago a Mexican restaurant opened near the food court, and since I really like and appreciate Mexican food, I thought I’d check it out. And the question I asked myself is: Would I drive to the mall simply to eat lunch or dinner at Zocalo even if I didn’t intend to go to any other establishment there? After several visits, my answer is an unequivocal yes.

Some “Mexican restaurants” in Ithaca and the U.S. are opened and operated by American restaurateurs who enjoy Mexican food and want to offer it to the public. But they haven’t a clue as to what authentic Mexican food cuisine is. Zocalo, on the other hand, is the real deal. Many of the employees, both cooks and servers, are Mexican (a server told me “we’re all Mexican except for three Guatemalans”) and we’ve chatted about how happy they are to be working with food from their homeland. All the servers seem anxious to please and come with a “can-do” attitude. Even the background music fits the restaurant’s culture and, I’m happy to say, is unobtrusive.

Zocalo is the name of the main square in the center of Mexico City and that’s what, I presume, this restaurant is named after. It’s a branch of Old Mexico on Elmira Road and a smaller location on Dryden Road in Collegetown. This establishment is a full-scale restaurant in an attractively updated version of the former Friendly’s restaurant. There are lots of comfortable quilted booths, and photographs of Mexican movie stars adorn the walls.

Almost all the food and sauces are made in-house and are tasty and appealing. The meals start with a delivery of homemade crispy, tasty chips and homemade tangy salsa in a glass pitcher. And, unlike homemade chip offerings at other establishments in town, these are complimentary.

The menu is large and diversified. At a recent lunch, I enjoyed pollo Yucatan ($8.75), grilled chicken breast served in a mix of veggies with a scoop of guacamole mixed with peppers and onions. Another time, I ordered chicken fajitas ($12.99) and was offered a choice of corn or flour tortillas. I ordered one of each for variety and, when they arrived, decided the difference was so insignificant that it really hadn’t mattered: both were soft and served in foil to keep them warm. Refried beans were presented in an attractive scalloped fried tortilla and there were accompanying ramekins of sour cream and pico de gallo. Both dishes were very flavorful without being spicy. If you like variety, you’ll find about a dozen lunch combinations (tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, chile rellenos and tostados) at $7.25.

Some dinner items are the same as lunch selections, only served in larger portions and more expensive. The mariscada ($13.99) is a huge bowl of homemade chipotle soup enclosing helpings of haddock, mussels in their shells, shrimp, calamari, and some mild peppers. The portion is so large I took home about the same quantity I consumed there. Although I understand that I’m mixing nationalities, I think the best way to describe it is a Mexican bouillabaisse. The enchiladas rancheras ($10.75) dish consists of five enchiladas, including a ground and a shredded beef, cheese, chicken, and bean filled, topped with a generous portion of lettuce and sour cream all in a homemade brown sauce.  

If you like margaritas, tequilas, or beer, you should be happy with the selection. They serve red sangria; however, I couldn’t find white sangria on the menu and the wine selection itself is limited. That doesn’t bother me, as I prefer beer with Mexican food.

Among the restaurants in town serving Mexican food, I like this the best. And for the past few months since Zocalo has opened, I’ve developed a new habit: I’ve actually been driving to the mall.


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