New flavors are popping up everywhere in Cincinnati’s dining scene, and Poco a Poco is a recent example. This Latin American eatery in the space formerly occupied by Red seemed like the perfect spot for a balmy Cincinnati summer night. So after strolling the streets of Hyde Park Square with my BFF Tracy, we decided to unplug from our everyday stress and give this new spot a whirl.
For a Wednesday night, they were much busier than I anticipated. My heart paused a moment when the hostess inquired about reservations, which we did not have. Luckily, seats were available.
The décor is very trendy and slightly upscale, but it’s a neighborhood place and all types seemed right at home mingling in the restaurant. Our waitress brought menus and water, briefly explained the tapas dining concept and gave us a moment to review the menu.
Tracy ordered a Mango Martini, while I opted for a signature mojito. All mixed drinks are $8 and the selections are printed on the coaster tile for quick reference. The mojito was visually very bright and appealing with its generous sprig of mint, and the martini boasted a ginormous hunk of mango, which Tracy thoroughly enjoyed. Both drinks tasted crisp, clear and refreshing.
We started with chips and salsa ($2) and a single order of guacamole ($6), so that we could buy a little time to review the menu. The guacamole was deep, creamy and fulfilling, but the salsa could use a little tweaking, as it seemed to lack identifying character or heat.
We first tried the Empanada ($5). If you’re not familiar with empanadas, I have two words for you: Hot Pocket. Served around the globe, these stuffed bread (or pastry) treats can take on literally thousands of combinations, but are generally prepared and consumed as a hearty, portable lunch.
The pint-sized empanadas at Poco a Poco are made mostly of corn and Chihuahua cheese, served with a smoked chili sauce and are quite yummy.
Next up, we requested the Ceviche ($12) and Fish Tacos ($12). The tacos were excellent. Hot, flavorful and extremely well seasoned, they were the best dish we sampled all evening.
I’ve read most of the reviews on the webernet about the Ceviche at Poco and they have been glowing. I think local diners are so excited to have a new menu item to try that they are reluctant to be critical. I’m going to go out on a limb here and report that, while I think it tasted OK, it's in need of some additional fine-tuning. The flavors were very light and refreshing (A ), and the large pieces shrimp and squid were enjoyable (B ), but I did not see any actual fish in the dish (C-). And it seemed to have marinated too long; the shrimp was definitely tough and rubbery (D). Overall score: C .
The Midwesterners in us knew it couldn’t be a real meal unless some actual meat was placed on the table, so we took a chance with the special: pork loin served on quinoa and topped with dressed salad greens. Sadly the dish was overcooked, resulting in a very dry piece of pork. When brought to the attention of our waitress, she alerted the manager, who quickly removed it from our bill and offered us a complimentary dessert. We felt his quick apology more than made up for the kitchen blunder.
Served with the pork were additional drinks — Tracy’s Guava Cooler and my Coconut Sunrise. The Guava Cooler turned out to be too bitter and acidic for either of our tastes. It was replaced with a margarita. I am not a fan of margaritas, but this one was made with a splash of orange juice and it was better than any I have ever had. The Coconut Sunrise was spectacular and I wish Poco would share the recipe with me — I would love to impress my friends by serving it at my next party.
The Charred Corn ($6, and also ordered with the pork) was a memorable munchie. Sauced in lime aioli and dusted with ground hot pepper, it was a smoky, satisfying dish with depth of flavor and a pleasing texture.
For dessert we sampled the only two menu choices: Carmel Flan and Fried Churros ($6 each). The flan was excellent, with the exception of the three-chili chutney perched atop the custard. I appreciated the effort to bring a new dimension to a classic dish, however it didn’t work for me. The churros were overcooked and it was a shame to see neighboring tables with the same dish perfectly executed.
Our “Girls’ Night Out” at Poco was a great experience. We visited a trendy area of town, enjoyed the energetic and hip vibe and generally enjoyed a meal as most girlfriends would: laughing, sipping summertime cocktails and sharing small plates of food. With time and attention to feedback, Poco a Poco will prove to be a lasting, tasty addition to the panorama that is Cincinnati dining.
POCO A POCO
Go: 2724 Erie Ave., Hyde Park
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday (bar until midnight); 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Thursday-Saturday (bar until 2 a.m.)
Entrée Prices: $5-$14
Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty, varied
Accessibility: Fully accessible