While it has been established in Dubai for some time, in two locations no less, Loca arrived somewhat out of the blue in Abu Dhabi.
What in other hands might have merely been another Mexican restaurant with a bar – a few of which already exist in the capital – has instead quickly established itself as a buzzy nightspot with some tip-top Latin food.
I already knew this because when I visited recently on a Saturday evening, it was my third Loca experience in almost as many weeks.
The wider Al Maryah Island area has been growing in dining stature in recent months, thanks to a string of notable openings.
Well-heeled diners are flocking to Coya and, across the road in the Four Seasons, Butcher & Still, as well as the already-established Zuma nearby. Much-hyped Turkish steakhouse Nusr-Et, with its Salt Bae gimmick, is a few steps from Loca's door.
But not everybody wants to dress up fancy for a meal. Or have sodium chloride sprinkled onto their food through a man’s arm hair. This is where Loca excels, with its magnificently inclusive Mexican menu and a genuinely good atmosphere in the green-tinged space, particularly come nightfall.
One of the highlights of our meal arrived in the opening mouthfuls. We went easy on the starters, ordering a bowl of guacamole and the jalapeños locas, but there was never any danger of the former being left uneaten. This wasn’t just any-old guacamole – it was chipotle guacamole, embellished with the titular smoked chilli peppers and lashings of grated Manchego cheese. In terms of a ratio of taste-to-simplicity, it was right up there.
In contrast, the jalapeños were by far the worst-advised selection of the evening, comprising a small dish of unnervingly large peppers. Advertised as being “rolled in crushed tortilla and filled with Oaxaca cheese”, they appeared to have been cooked for a minute too long, and had the outer consistency of stale doughnuts. A more accurate description would involve the words “dry” and “flavourless”. About the only saving grace was they were at least decently spicy.
My dining partner opted for a light main of tacos baja – spiced grilled kingfish with chipotle mayonnaise in soft-shell tacos (you can also opt for hard-shell) – and had no complaints.
My choice was rather weightier: enchiladas de pollo mole rojo, packed with chicken and doused in what is perhaps the crowning glory of Loca’s ingredients – an addictive chocolate/chilli mole sauce. Both mains came with sides of rice and, with perfect viscousness, de la olla beans. Having previously sampled the splendid bedel tres leches (an ultra-moist traditional three-milk cake) at Loca’s brunch, we decided to skip that for the sake of variety and try the bananas borracha – caramelised bananas, flambéed.
The amiable waiter who took our dessert order – one of several servers we had during the evening, who varied in mood and efficiency – had other ideas, however.
Whether it was a ruse to avoid an unavailable dish or a genuine recommendation, he cheerfully informed us that the bananas borracha “isn’t very good”. Cake it was, then. There was no such drama with the banana empanada – do not try to say that with a mouthful of dessert – which was a sweet, semi-circular turnover with cinnamon sugar.
My running total of Loca visits has since risen to four and is unlikely to stop there. What it lacks in five-star service is more than compensated for by the menu and value for money – three courses plus water, for two, for just over Dh400 is a recommendation in itself.
• Our meal for two at Loca, The Galleria, Al Maryah Island, Abu Dhabi, cost Dh413. For more details, call 02 582 3639