Zack Bruell told her she was nuts. After spending 18 years operating a gas station at East 79th Street and Chester Avenue, the only formal culinary experience Rosita Kutkut had was frying up chicken tenders and jo-jos for on-the-go customers at her accompanying convenience store.
Ready for a change of pace, Kutkut sold the station. She turned her attention to the restaurant business, seeking advice from seasoned culinary pros — including serial restaurateur Bruell, owner of Parallax, Table 45 and L’Albatros. He may have told her she was crazy, Kutkut recalls, but he also offered moral support.
In June, Kutkut unveiled her Latin American concept, La Boca, in the Gordon Square Arts District. And as far as I can tell, La Boca defies all laws of the restaurant business. I never would have bet that a person with no experience could succeed so quickly.
The reason for La Boca’s popularity may also be, at least in part, thanks to three calculated moves on Kutkut’s part.
First, she chose a location that had already proven successful for its two previous restaurant tenants — Snickers and Krazy Mac’s, the latter of which closed because the owner says it was too popular.
“I saw the building and hated it,” recalls Kutkut, who grew up in the neighborhood. “But everybody was encouraging me to invest in this area.”
She spent six months turning the dark, crowded space into a bright, spacious room with colorful works from local artists. The work she did on the place creates a wide-open, airy environment that is far different from the look of the building’s former tenants.
Kutkut’s second decision was hiring chef Adam Schmith, who previously led the kitchen at Melange. Schmith left the Beachwood spot for hip replacement surgery. In February, he was ready to get back to work and Kutkut was in the market to hire a chef. Luckily for us, the two found each other.
It was Kutkut’s idea to serve her South American ancestral cuisine. But the Argentine owner didn’t want to limit Schmith. All she asked is that he include two traditional Latin American items on the menu: empanadas, which are pastries usually filled with fish, meat or vegetables; and chimichurri, a spicy sauce often made from cilantro, parsley, garlic, vinegar and oil.
Rather than offering straightforward South American meals, Schmith chose to cook with spices from the region, melding them with his own style.
That’s why you’ll find pork tenderloin with fried plantains and bacon ($15) alongside butternut squash ravioli with sage arugula simmering in a chorizo cream and Malbec cherry reduction drizzle ($14). It’s as if Schmith went grocery shopping down the ethnic foods aisle saying, “I’ll take a little of this, and a little of that.” He blends cultures and climates, and it works.
As a starter at La Boca, empanadas are filled with unconventional ingredients. One is stuffed with a very American combination of chicken, brie and spinach ($6), while another is filled with lamb and kalamata olives and served with a mint yogurt on the side ($6.50), giving the dish a Mediterranean take.
What Schmith prepares are dishes inspired by the region in presentation, though not always in flavor.
“We don’t claim to be authentic,” he says. “The food has more of a Cleveland base to it than Latino, but with twists and influences from South America.”
Way out of the realm of Latin cuisine are egg rolls filled with pork ($6). Here again, Schmith (“The only Jewish Latin chef in town that uses more pork on the menu than anyone,” he jokes) twists the tradition. Instead of ordinary ginger soy sauce, he pairs the dish with sarachi sauce and a banana compote that’s exotic, sweet and spicy — just one example of how sauces at La Boca bring old standards to an exciting new level.
The crispy calamari ($9) is another, accompanied with a trio of flavors — cucumber ginger and chipotle aioli merged with a tangy lime marmalade and just the right amount of heat.
One of the menu’s biggest flavors came in a seasonal salad (off the menu for the fall) with tomato and Cabrales cheese, shaved onion and olives ($8.50). Cabrales, a sharp, soft Spanish blue cheese, is tempered by a sherry-based dressing. Follow this tasty cheese on the menu — it’s a delight wherever it pops up. The salad’s fall counterpart will be roasted root vegetables with Spanish goat cheese ($8.50).
On a menu that takes much of its influence from meat-laden Argentina, the best-seller is the roasted scallops ($17.50). Delicately prepared, they match well with a mango-cilantro pesto served with petit fresh corn pancakes.
Nearly as popular, the grilled salmon ($16) was served just past slightly rare. It shared the plate with sugar roasted squash, fried spinach and spiced chipotle cider. If there was a drawback, it was that the portion of fish was on the small side. Then again, it was only $16.
Which brings me, finally, to Kutkut’s third spot-on decision that has boosted the restaurant’s instant success: prices. All entrées range from $13 to $19, meaning it doesn’t have to be a special occasion to dine here. Pair the cost with the types and sizes of dishes on the menu, and diners have abundant choices.
Picking from the bocadillo section of the menu yields interesting sandwiches such as pulled pork with smoked gouda and papaya mustard or a burger with adobo spice rub and garlic-cilantro aioli. All range from $8 to $10.
The similarly priced pan plano section offers flat-bread combinations such as rock shrimp, corn, red pepper and smoked tomato sauce or chicken, cilantro pesto and oven roasted tomato with goat cheese.
Despite the odds, Kutkut’s trifecta works. “I thought, You know what, I am going to take this challenge,” she says.
Rosita, we’re glad you did.
La Boca, 5800 Detroit Ave., Cleveland, (216) 961-5800; Mon-Thu 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri & Sat 11 a.m. - 2 a.m., Sun 5 - 9 p.m. labocabarrio.com