Tico’s mantra of “anything but traditional” makes for an energetic buzz that hits you the moment you enter the restaurant. Oranges and purples are illuminated by light fixtures in every shape and size.
By Katie Pelczar — Photographed by Jazz Martin
We arrived early in the evening, as the after work crowd was filtering in, and spent a few minutes in the bar. The bar is where the energy begins. Slowly, the area began to hum, and the wave of energy spilled across the space as the night went on. Late in the evening, the tide receded, leaving much of the restaurant hushed. But not for long. The swirl of energy concentrated at the bar again, as the who’s who of Boston’s restaurant scene filed in for post-shift blood orange margaritas.
As we sat down, the table next to us was embarking on dinner. I smiled at the group of men, with their loosened neckties and half-full drinks. A server had just placed a handful of small plates on their table, and the gentleman closest to me was digging in.
“Oh man,” he moaned, “Oh yeah, oh yeah.” I now know how those deli patrons must have felt in Meg Ryan’s famous ‘When Harry Met Sally’ scene. My cheeks flushed as the adjacent moaning continued. “Oh yeah, this is the best thing to happen to corn since bread!” he mumbled.
I had no choice, “I’ll have what he’s having,” I told our server.
I have to admit that I almost moaned myself. The creamed corn with bacon, chilies and Thai basil is a brilliant balance of smoky, sweet, spicy and rich. The corn is both firm and creamy, fresh and deep, a true introduction to Chef Joshua Smith’s mastery of balance. Chef Josh is a self proclaimed ‘meat geek’ having studied meat science in Iowa and spent much of his career perfecting the art of charcuterie. So it should be no surprise that the two texture beef tacos are actually my favorite dish on the menu. Sticking true to Tico’s mantra, Chef Josh braises short ribs for an incredibly tender, yet nontraditional base, and tops it with crisp bits of beef, chopped cilantro, sliced radishes, and morita chilies. The tacos are served with a little wedge of lime, and it’s not just for garnish, as the acid of the lime elevates the rich, spicy beef and brightens the crisp radishes for contrast.
You might also try the fried manchego with pomegranate sauce, a kind of grown-up play on mozzarella sticks with marinara. The mushroom and cheese quesadilla with truffle salsa is earthy but surprisingly light and crisp. The shredded cabbage salad is a study of textures. The soft but crunchy cabbage, along with bits of sweet zucchini, crisp asparagus, and meaty crushed almonds are elevated by a pesto-like salsa verde vinaigrette. “This,” I thought, “is what happens when you combine Michael Schlow and a humble coleslaw.”
If you try nothing else at Tico, order the roasted cauliflower. The nutty florets are coated in a creamy, smoky chipotle sauce and topped with salty cheese and crunchy fried fava beans. Fried fava beans, called ‘habitas’ are a salty snack ubiquitous in Peru. Sold from street carts and served with drinks, they are addictive, and so is this dish.
You can certainly make a meal of small plates at Tico, in fact, many patrons do. But Chef Joshua’s skirt steak is really not to be missed. This beautiful entrée is perfectly cooked, expertly seasoned and exquisitely beefy – a testament to that Iowa training! The golden chicken, reminiscent of Peru’s famous rotisserie, is juicy but crisp. It is served with both a highly seasoned pan sauce and a creamy saffron aioli, which combine together to form the ideal gravy for the chicken, as well as the asparagus and potato rounds. Brown on the outside and shockingly creamy inside, these simple potatoes are another lesson in the possibilities of texture.
Having long been a devotee of the burger served in the lounge of Michael Schlow’s Radius, I couldn’t help but try the bacon cheeseburger at Tico. When I first moved to Boston, I met a friend for drinks at Radius after work. Not particularly ravenous, we ordered a burger to split. We devoured it and ordered another. I have been hooked ever since. I waited for the bacon cheeseburger to arrive, wondering nervously if it could stand up to its sister burger across town. I needn’t have been concerned. I cut the burger in half and handed a piece to my companion. He took a bite, “Wow, you want a little burger with your bacon?” he laughed through the enormous burger. The bacon really is the star here; thick, smoky slices cover the burger, adding salty intensity to the wonderfully moist beef and buttery brioche bun. The fact is, Tico’s burger is simply too different to even compare to the refined, horseradish and pepper napped version at Radius. This burger is rugged, manly, and massive!
If you make it to dessert, fun, childhood favorites await you. Tico’s play on the banana split, with its caramelized banana, dark chocolate gelato, Mexican chocolate sauce, and whipped peanut butter mousse, puts the sundaes of my childhood to shame. Cookies come with a cocktail shaker of ice-cold milk, perfect for dunking. I am a cookie-dunker, but respect the rights of other non-dunking folk. If you’re splitting your cookies with a non-dunker, you might want to ask for an extra glass! And if you’re looking for something a bit more grown up, the chocolate tart, served with tres leche ice cream and sweet caramel sauce fits the bill.