It’s expected at any hip restaurant these days to see a million different flavors and ingredients. And in many ways that’s why people go out to eat to begin with. After all, if it were everyday cuisine, why not just make it yourself at home?
This make sense on the surface, and I would never take issue with culinary creativity, but the mistake restaurants make is when they lose sight of the basic tenets of what makes food delicious in the first place: fresh, local, natural ingredients.
When did we decide cuisine needs to shock and amaze us with a dozen ingredients we’ve never heard of? Can’t you find that at McDonalds? I’m sure if you saw the (long) list of what actually goes into a Big Mac you’d no doubt be amazed—and likely even shocked. So I’m not sure if exoticness is necessarily a good thing.
OK that analogy isn’t fair, but it isn’t necessarily wrong either.
In essence, food is simple. It’s the wholesome, fresh ingredients—cooked with a lot of love—that make flavors jump off the plate and smack you in the face. It’s not the amount of ingredients; it’s the quality.
I could talk about this all day. And so can Khoa Dinh. How do I know? Because he did. Khoa is the owner of the brand new Lucha Tigre, and his enthusiasm for fresh food is probably even greater than mine. First, that last point is significant in itself. Second, I didn’t even tell him I was reviewing the place, he’s just that excited about what his restaurant is doing.
That’s why he’s here in Chapel Hill. He cares about his food, and he knows that those in the Chapel Hill community care just as much about the food they eat. It’s not like he had to tell me this bluntly, it’s just obvious in the way he talks about his menu— how the pork is organic, how the basil and rosemary at the bar (that’s right, the rosemary at the bar, we’ll get to that later) are purchased as locally as possible.
Honestly, it’s difficult to a review a place like this. It isn’t just because the menu is a hybrid Latin-Asian collection, it’s because that menu is going to change, constantly. So much so that Khoa said he could barely predict what would be there from month to month. But, of course, these are good things.
Lucha Tigre has only been open about a week, and is technically still in “soft” opening, but Khoa promised a menu that changes frequently to keep up with what’s fresh and in season. Now I know that sounds a bit like the overbearing ingredients I was talking about earlier, but it’s just the opposite, and why my dinner at Lucha this week was one of the best I’ve had in a long while.
See, when you use fresh ingredients it lets the natural flavor do what it’s supposed to do. That sounds oversimplified, but remember, food is simple. It’s supposed to be this way. That doesn’t mean it’s pedestrian (far from it), as you can see in the dishes I tried below, including the General Chick Taco, The Peanut Chicken Empanada, and the Pork Belly Buns.
If you think that sounds interesting, you have to check out the bar. Lucha Tigre’s specialty might be their all-natural mixed drinks. Each one has different muddled ingredients (basil, rosemary, sugarcane)— my bartender looked like an architect working on a project. They take these drinks seriously. I had a Blackberry Old Fashioned, with organic blackberries, orange, bitters, Chambord, and Makers Mark and it just might have been the best mixed drink I’ve ever had in my life. If anything, I’ll be back soon to double check. The mixed drinks are pricey (about $9 each), but trust me, you get what you pay for.
It’s so you unique that you really have to try it for yourself, but to reiterate Tigre’s overarching theme here: by keeping things simple the distinct elements can do more on your palette. I found myself picking out individual flavors and ingredients like I was on the Food Newtork.
My only real complaint is that the menu might change before readers can see this publication. As of today, Lucha Tigre sports thirteen Sakes, fifteen imported beers from all over the globe, twenty-six tequilas (26!) and a promise to add even more to that list. (Rest easy Hipsters and college students, my only personal question was whether they had PBR, and they do— $2 dollar cans every day.)
Lucha Tigre is exciting because it represents a movement back to what dining should be about. It’s creative and exciting, but doesn’t forget the simplicity of what great food really is: natural, environmentally conscious and above all delicious.