UPDATE: This restaurant has closed.
Everything about Olla proclaims a bold intention: This will not be just another taquería from a chef made famous by tacos.
Scott Linquist may have ridden the taco trend with Coyo Taco in Wynwood and Brickell, but he aspires to more at this 5-month-old restaurant on a quiet side street in South Beach.
A look at the menu alone shows Linquist, a SoCal native and modern Mexican cookbook author, knows Mexican fare and isn’t afraid to present a challenging dish. The proof is right on the page.
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Snacks include chapulines, toasted Oaxacan grasshoppers that make for your average bar snack in Mexico but are a spectacle here that he bravely features atop of his menu. Entrées include several styles of molés, some made with hard-to-source ingredients, such as chilhuacle and chilcostle peppers for his Oaxacan molé negro.
And shareable skillets called ollas (the Spanish term for pots) highlight specialties such as huitlacoche, what he calls corn “truffles,” but that are in fact a specific kind of fungus that grows on corn and makes for a truly unique and funky flavor that speaks of Mexico and nowhere else.
He even placed his restaurant within walking distance of two beloved taquerías as Bodega and Huahua’s, as if to emphasize this is no grab-and-go. There’s no Coyo crutch here. These dishes are meant to be savored and shared, family-style, to show off his skill and their unique character.
So when it comes to embracing those unique flavors, why is Olla playing it safe?
That question stumped me during several visits. Many dishes start with a risk but fall back to safe choices, concessions made for the American (and Miami) palate — when doubling down would truly set Olla apart.
That’s not to say there weren’t several satisfying dishes, many of them showing the talent that made Linquist a success at restaurants such as Los Angeles’ Border Grill and New York’s Dos Caminos and the New York Times star-reviewed El Toro Blanco, whose menu he created.
Take the huitlacoche. Linquist has been sourcing from the same farm for more than a decade and learned to make the dish in Mexican homes during many visits there over the past 20 years, he said in an interview after my visits. But in Olla’s version, he mottles the huitlacoche with other wild mushrooms, cheese and ubiquitous truffle oil to give diners a more familiar flavor.
The dish is flavorful and filling with three kinds of tortillas (flour and white and yellow corn) to build your own bite. But I couldn’t stop wishing it had bravely trusted its featured ingredient without resorting to the truffle crutch.
Ditto with molé. Among a selection of four different molés and meats, our waiter recommended the chichilo, a short rib smothered in painstakingly created charred black molé that is then slow-cooked for six hours. Our fork-tender short rib fell apart perfectly, but the molé was thin and lacked the fruity, nutty and smoky depth that is the hallmark of this dish. A fan of meat and potatoes, though, would be happy with it.
We had the same issue with the cochinita pibil, a Yucatán-style roasted pork falling apart beautifully in achiote sauce. But it’s one thing to show subtlety and restraint; it’s another to wonder how such a sweet and earthy spice fails to leave its mark on this dish.
If only all of the dishes had trusted their ingredients like the jar of chapulines. The dish is a dare. The toasted tiny torsos arrive in a jar with golden raisins and almonds, sprinkled with bittersweet chocolate, and they are meant to be eaten atop halved cucumbers with an avocado spread and cotija cheese. Even on their own, the tiny grasshoppers were an interesting, crispy puff, and you can see why Mexicans usually eat them dusted with chili-lime as a bar snack.
All of which made it more surprising to find that Olla’s most straightforward dishes were the most willing with bold flavors.
Start with the chicharrones, fried puffed pork rinds drizzled in a finger-licking salsa borracha and garlic mayo. Then move to the chicken enchilada, hand-rolled and baked to order in a casserole of bright and citrusy salsa verde. The tender shredded chicken bursts with flavor, and you’ll find yourself scrounging tortillas to wipe up the sauce.
The charros olla, simply described as a small pot of cowboy beans with pork belly, combines meaty chunks in a sauce heightened with pasilla chiles to make for a hearty and satisfying dish.
And the tamales almost seem quaint on this menu. But one bite into them reveals a depth of flavor in a masa redolent with sweet ground corn, which Linquist complements with stewed chicken and a poblano sauce.
Pair a few of these dishes with a tasting flight of tequila or mezcal (including the homemade sangrita, with a ginger-hibiscus simple syrup, that brings out the flavors of the liquor) and you can have a memorable meal.
Linquist admits the restaurant is still trying to find its audience. Maybe that’s because we already have enough (read: too many) Mexican restaurants simplifying flavors for American sensibilities. Success favors the bold — and bold flavors.
Perhaps Olla still has time to double-down, take off the training wheels and fulfill the promise of its bold intentions.
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If you go
Address: 1233 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach
Rating: ☆ ☆ 1/2 (Good)
Contact: 786-717-5400; OllaMiami.com
Hours: Dinner: Monday through Sunday, 4-11 p.m. Brunch: Friday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Prices: Starters and sharing plates, $8-$12; entrées and larger sharable plates, $14-$28
FYI: Off-street metered parking and in lot one block south. All major credit cards accepted. Extensive tequila and mezcal menu, including tasting flights. Full liquor bar, as well as beer and wine.
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)