We've had our eyes on Verde since its impending opening was announced last spring. Granted, it's hard not to keep an eye on Verde, located as it is in the new, shocking-green Glass Lofts building looming angularly over Penn Avenue in Garfield. Strolling past, we enjoyed peeking through the big windows to see the interior shaping up.
And it's quite the distinctive interior. With concrete floors and floor-to-ceiling glass exterior walls, it is bright and noisy in that particular way that makes intimacy possible; as more and more tables were seated around us, it grew increasingly difficult to hear any conversation but our own in the growing, convivial din. In a mostly minimalist space, artwork provides not just decoration but decor itself. Several large murals, painted by a local artist, evoke Mexican themes in an almost graffiti style that is neither literal nor kitschy. Behind the softly glowing bar, a mosaic of a bird transforms into three dimensions at the tips of its wings. And much of the ceiling is obscured by large, free-form, angular wood panels that warm the space without calming it.
Somehow this seems like a metaphor for the menu, which is most certainly not that of a straight Mexican, or even Mexi-Cali, restaurant. It presents absolutely traditional items, including tableside-prepared guacamole and elotes, grilled corn-on-the-cob slathered with lime aioli. (We suspect that roadside stands in Mexico aren't making their own aioli.) There are also reconceived classics, like flautas that look like tiny egg rolls, and invented, fusion-y dishes like tacos with roasted sweet potatoes, fried chickpeas and Mexican-style tzatziki.
If Verdes's approach was initially hard to grasp, the menu was wisely brief, and all looked good to us. (The menu also changes regularly.) After we made our choices, we tucked into complimentary chips and salsa: The chips were fresh, light, and crisp, and the verde salsa (of course) offered dominant sweet, not tart, notes. A dash of sugar isn't an uncommon ingredient in roasted-tomatillo salsas, but this sweetness had its own distinctive character, as if from honey or even agave nectar.
The guacamole also had a distinctive flavor, although in this case we suspected out-of-season avocados were simply a touch watery, leading to an imbalance with the pungent red onions and astringent diced tomatoes.
Soon our attention turned to the aforementioned flautas, filled with smoked chicken and topped with poblano slaw and crema. The crisp, even brittle tortillas barely surrounded the chicken, offering an airy crunch, a puff of smoky aroma and a mouthful of tenderness when bitten. Our only quibble was that the slaw was too coarse for the small rolls, making it hard to get everything into each bite. This might not have been an issue had we used knife and fork, but crispy little tubes are finger food, surely.
Pozole, a hominy-and-pork stew, was exceptional. The broth was deeply flavored, hearty but not heavy; the pork shoulder was rich and tender. Little beads of hominy were pleasingly chewy, and a side plate of fresh add-ins let us include crispy radish and fiery jalapeño to taste. Toasted pumpkin seeds were the not-so-secret ingredient that added their own nugget-like texture and earthy flavor.
Jason's carne asada was equally exciting. Completely tender tequila-marinated steak arrived dressed with a classic chimichurri and accompanied by slightly chunky poblano-mashed potatoes and onion rings coated with just enough breadcrumbs to suggest a crust without hiding the onion within. We also tried the sweet-potato tacos (called de camote), which were surprising, yet successful. The surprise was the absence of any clear "Mexican" flavor — no cumin, no chili, no lime (that we noticed) — but the flavors that were present came together well. We especially enjoyed the subtle distinction between the potatoes and the chickpeas, both tender but texturally distinct, both earthy but in different ways. The shell was a soft flour tortilla, another inauthentic but clearly correct choice, providing a milder background flavor rather than the more assertive corn.
Chicken enchiladas were the only disappointment of our meal. Although the smoked chicken filling was, itself, delicious, the poblano crema sauce did not provide enough of a counterpoint, leaving the entire dish a bit bland. The enchiladas' character led us to believe that perhaps they were on the menu as an option for the unadventurous. A vegetarian version, including Swiss chard, smoked tomato, mushrooms and caramelized onions, sauced with salsa roja, in hindsight seems more intriguing.
Verde is not perfection, nor is it a place to explore authentic Mexican cuisine. But it is an attractive, artistic, exciting place to try recipes inspired by the vibrance of Mexican culture and cooking (not to mention over 150 tequilas). Come to Garfield and visit Verde: You can't miss it.