You've always known not to judge a book by its cover, and we can apply the same principle of "what's important is on the inside" to Bucanas, the new Mexican restaurant on Summer Avenue at Berclair. In this case, we'll say, "Don't judge a restaurant by its tinted windows."
If not exactly ominous, with nearly black windows and signs advertising beer specials, Bucanas' exterior is also not exactly welcoming to diners. It gives the impression that it's a night spot, not a friendly place for lunch and dinner. And true enough, there is late-night action on weekends, with a live band and a dance floor.
The servers and management staff are friendly and attentive. But we're here for the food, which is hearty, tasty and even a little different.
Mexican restaurants tend to have very large or abbreviated menus, and this is the former. You'll find standards such as tacos, enchiladas, and burritos in abundance, but you'll also find barbecued lamb (delicious, and shredded like a pot roast), a whole fried fish, several shrimp dishes and very nicely done carnitas (though you'll find the pork item listed under beef).
The star of the menu is the molcajete, a dish named for the big bowl in which it's served. While you've almost certainly seen the plastic version of the three-footed bowl holding salsa at other Mexican restaurants, this is a real molcajete, a bowl made of volcanic rock and traditionally used as a mortar and pestle in the preparation of Mexican cuisine.
At Bucanas, the bowl is heated and layered with chorizo (spicy pork sausage), thin slices of beef, chicken breasts, nopals (cactus leaves), shrimp, grilled green onions and jalapeño peppers. A spicy red sauce bubbles around it all, and the queso fresco on top of the glorious medley melts to a make a slightly gooey cover over it all, pulling like cheese on hot pizza.
It's delicious. The sauce has enough kick that the truly timid should stay away, but it's not enough to discourage most people. The meats are grilled before they're put in the molcajete, and the flavor of each comes through; the chorizo is thoughtfully put in the bottom of the dish so that it doesn't flavor the meats on top of it.
It comes with corn or flour tortillas, plus a big plate of rice, beans, and a salad with guacamole. You can assemble it fajita-style if you so desire, or just eat from the bowl (or a plate, as two can easily share the $15 dish).
While dining on molcajete and carnitas, we spotted an impressive shrimp cocktail at a nearby table. It was served in a massive margarita glass with large shrimp curled over the edge, and was so enticing it prompted a visit the next day.
The tomato juice in the cocktail is usually too sweet for me in Mexican restaurants. While it was sweet-ish at Bucanas, the suffix makes all the difference. Here the plump shrimp and ripe avocado are enhanced by the sweetness in the juice, not overwhelmed by it. There's enough spice to balance it, lime to brighten it, and a bottle of Valentina within easy reach. It was excellent.
The mojarra was the only thing we tried that we didn't particularly like. It's a whole fried tilapia, and there's nothing about it that shouldn't be likable. The fish was flaky and tender, the salad of onion, cucumber, avocado and jalapeño fresh and appealing.
The fish simply tasted too fishy, more like catfish from the old days than a mild tilapia. It wasn't bad, but it was stronger than expected and a bit off-putting.
The basics are covered: The salsa is fresh tasting, and varied just enough from visit to visit for it to seem housemade.
Guacamole is creamy and tasty. The cheese dip is the standard white variety, but it's a beer drinker's dream when used to make "super Bucanas dip," a mix of cheese dip, seasoned ground beef, beans and pico de gallo. I bet it's popular with the late-night crowd; I know it was a hit at our table.
The bar in Bucanas is much larger than you might expect. They serve a nice margarita and an excellent — one of the best I've tasted — michelada (think Bloody Mary made with beer).
Around 9:30 p.m. on most Fridays and Saturdays and 4 p.m. on Sundays, live music starts. If you're there to eat, you can stay and enjoy the show without charge, but if you're going just to dance and drink, the cover charge can be up to $25. It can also be as little as $5, so call ahead to find out who's playing and the cover charge.
2 1/2 Stars
Food: 2 1/2 Stars
Service: 2 Stars
Atmosphere: 2 Stars
Address: 4522 Summer, Suite 1.
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10:30 a.m.-midnight or as late as 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Live music most Friday and Saturday nights starting around 9:30 p.m., and Sunday afternoons around 4 p.m. Cover charge varies and can go up to $25 at night (if you're having dinner, you can stay without paying the cover).
Reviewer's choice: Molcajete ($14.99); shrimp cocktail ($8.50 small); carnitas ($11.50); super Bucanas dip ($6.99).
Alcohol: Full bar.