4600 Nolensville Rd. 781-9050 Open daily for dining
11 a.m.-10 p.m., with club hours Tues.-Sat. until 3 a.m.
To set the mood for dinner at Coco Loco, the Latin restaurant and nightclub where our party was convening that evening, one particularly enthusiastic dining companion mixed himself a mojito at home and poured it in a to-go cup. It was so bad, he told us at the table, that he asked his wife to pull the car over so that he could pour it out on Nolensville Road.
Obviously, there is a technique to concocting the perfect mojitoa Cuban cocktail made with rum, lime, sugar and fresh mintand our inept mixologist could have saved himself the trouble, because Omar Hernandez, the restaurant’s chef and master mojito maker, has it down pat.
Our first round of mojitos, each garnished with a large sprig of fresh mint, did prove to be mood-setters, as well as a promising sign of what was to come. But even if the food had proven disappointing, we still would have graded the experience a rousing success, between the sassy mojitos, the beguilingly kitschy island decor, the friendly staff, the rhythmic beat of the music and the high-spirited company. That the vast and exotic repast we consumed like locusts chomping gleefully through a field of grass turned out to be so pleasing to the eye and the palate made the entire evening as close to perfect as anyone could ask for.
Coco Loco is the quixotic creation of Santos Gonzalez, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent who wears a permanent dazzling smile. Talk about crazy coconuts, what in the world would lead someone to open a Cuban-Puerto Rican restaurant in Nashville, along a stretch of road that counts at least two restaurantes mexicanos between every mile marker?
“Our idea was to open a Latin nightclub and do just enough finger foods to meet the legal requirements to serve alcohol,” he says. “But right after we opened, we did a buffet of some Cuban and Puerto Rican foods, and people went crazy. They loved it. Every time they came back, they asked when we would have the buffet again. So finally, I just decided to make a menu.”
It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar assignment for the former serviceman, who had been stationed at Ft. Campbell, where he says there is a sizable Latin population. His father was in the food business, both in Puerto Rico and in New York City, where he had a small Puerto Rican restaurant on Third Avenue and 116th Street, the bustling heart of Spanish Harlem. After his discharge, Gonzalez began promoting Latin nights at clubs in Kentucky and Tennessee, until settling into a cinder-block building on Nolensville Road, a former Mr. Gatti’s transformed by a coat of bright turquoise paint.
The dazzling paint job is a faint clue to the out-of-Nashville experience one encounters inside Coco Loco, reminiscent of some Latin nightclubs I have patronized in New York and Florida. Though not so elegant as Club Babalu, the supper club where Ricky Ricardo held court as the exuberant Cuban bandleader on I Love Lucy, he would certainly have felt at home here. The colors are tropical, and wall-to-wall mirrors reflect diners and dancers alike. The latter take over the floors after 10 on Friday and Saturday nights, though Gonzalez is happy to spin a salsa on request, should the Latin videos that play constantly on the big-screen television move you to hit the dance floor. Potted palms and painted coconuts reinforce the tropical mood; we were especially taken by the ceiling-high plastic palm tree that centers the bar, with its 10-foot span of leaves illuminated by bright-green running lights.
The first menu at Coco Loco had about 20 items, with a primary focus on the Puerto Rican dishes that Gonzalez, his father and cousinall sharing KPwere familiar with. About one month later, Gonzalez met Omar Hernandez, and a Puerto Rican-Cuban merger was forged. “My father and I cooked typical Puerto Rican food that we learned at home,” he admits. “Omar was classically trained; he cooked for some of the best hotels and wealthy families in Cuba. I told him he was way overqualified to cook for me, but he was settling in Nashville and needed a job, so it worked out well.”
The current menu at Coco Loco is lengthy, starting at No. 1 with Ceviche de salmon y camarones and ending at No. 38 with Biftec de Palomilla, and provides English translations along with the proper Spanish name. In addition to the Puerto Rican and Cuban dishes, there are a few Mexican and South American specialties thrown in. Gonzalez notes that Puerto Rico and Cuba share many similarities, describing them as “two different feathers from the same bird.” But, in a poignant reminder of the crushing political and socioeconomic realities of present-day Cuba, he points out that Cuban food in America is far removed from what people now living on the island actually eat. According to Hernandez, though beans and rice have long been an integral part of the culture, they remain the predominant meal in part because government rationing allows families just five eggs per month and one piece of chicken a week. The bounty of the Coco Loco table represents Hernandez’s interpretation of dining in pre-Castro Cuba.
First-time Coco Loco customers often assume that, because of the restaurant’s location and name, the food will be Mexican. But instead of the ubiquitous tortilla chips and salsa, diners are greeted with warm, slightly sweet, deep-fried plantain strips, salted and served with a bowl of garlic-infused white sauce for dipping. They are positively addictive, as the diners to my right and my left will attest; I feared for the safe return of my hands, had either appendage been so foolish to venture toward the aggressively defended baskets scant inches away.
With a hungry and enthusiastic party one shy of a dozen, we were easily able to cover about a third of the entrées and most of the appetizers. Assuming your group will be smaller, allow me to cull some of the highlights from an evening chock-full of them. The ceviche that kicks off the menu is an excellent way to start your meal. It is presented on an oblong serving plate; one compartment is filled with salmon ceviche, one with chopped shrimp, both traditionally prepared with a lime marinade, then kicked up with the addition of diced hot peppers. Put a spoonful of ceviche on a cracker, or with a bit of the raw grated red cabbage and lettuce that provide texture and color to almost every single plate.
The tostones rellenos de camarones, a large shrimp inserted into a split length of plantain, then deep-fried, is something one buys from carts on Puerto Rican beaches. Though such a setting might enhance the pleasure, the lack of surf and sand did not detract from the dish. Buffalo chicken wings apparently translate to alitas de pollo loco in Puerto Rico. Though they emerged as clean-picked bones on one end of the table, they seem more conducive to sitting in front of a college football game in a Hillsboro Village sports bar on a Saturday afternoon. Steer your fork instead to the fab-tastico boniato relleno de ropa vieja, buttered mashed sweet potatoes topped with shreds of spicy flank steak.
There are multiple ways to eat your rice and beans at Coco Loco: with slightly sweet black beans and perfectly steamed white rice served as separate but equal partners; all mixed together in a stew-like mélange; refried pintos with tortillas; or the arroz con gandules, a rare and highly recommended local opportunity to try a Puerto Rican tradition. Pigeon peas are about the size of black-eyed peas, but dark-brown in color; cooked with pieces of pork, the resultant juice turns the rice a dark golden color. Pigeon peas are a vital element of the Puerto Rican holiday table, much like cranberries and dressing in America. Have them here as a side, or as the base of the first entrée, Arroz con gandules y carne de cerdo (fried pork tips).
Another must-try is mofongo, meat-and-potatoes Puerto Rican comfort food. Plantains are cooked and mashed, mixed with a light chicken broth to make a creamier texture, and topped with either pork chunks or shrimp, which the diner stirs into the mashed plantains before chowing down.
The biftec uruguallo is a South American version of chicken cordon bleu, but instead of chicken breast, a thick cut of beef is stuffed with ham, deep fried, then covered with a slice of mild white cheese. It is rich and filling. Both the picadillo a la habanera and the ropa vieja are Cuban dishesor at least they were when Cubans had beef. The former is minced, doused in spicy red sauce and topped with tangy green olives; the latter is marinated, then cooked to shreddable, flavorful tenderness. Both were presented with a mound of white rice, shredded cabbage and lettuce, and sliced tomatoes.
We were tempted to order another round of mojitos for dessert, but instead shared a delectable platter of cut fresh fruits, including mango, guava, pineapple, starfruit and oranges, with a heap of freshly grated coconut and slim slices of silky flan.
It is one of the great benefits of Nashville’s rapidly growing global community that our culinary landscape is simultaneously thriving and expanding. With the opening of Coco Loco, diners should add Cuba and Puerto Rico to their restaurant travelogue.