The Cavalier Daily
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Mono Loco spices up food with Cuban flair

Many restaurants try to make up in atmosphere what they don't achieve in food quality. Luckily Mono Loco balances both and creates a very fun dining experience. The small colorful eatery, located a big step from the Downtown Hoo Bus stop, excites both the patron's vision and tastes. Offering Cuban and other south-of-the-border-inspired creations, Mono Loco has been serving food to Charlottesville residents for about four years.

The back of the space is lined with a curvaceous bar and a partially hidden kitchen. Several small tables and booths make up the dining room. Mono Loco does not take reservations because they usually have no problem filling the seats, which are furry, white chairs. The wall lamps are dimmed with alligator or leaf covers serving as shades. The diners mostly consist of young Charlottesville residents and hip older ones.

The small menu is fairly varied with a mixture of creations that exceed expectations, while some fall short.

Some of the "Entradas" seemed lackluster. For instance, the ensalda ($4) was a basic salad with a balsamic sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. Also offered were chips and salsa ($4) and grilled pita wedges ($6) with hummus. On the more exciting side of the menu, an empanada ($6) filled with chevre and roasted poblanos was listed, along with a coconut shrimp appetizer ($7).

We chose the coconut shrimp because it came with a cilantro-chile-peanut sauce. Six perfectly steamed shrimp posed like synchronized swimmers were centered on the bright fiesta-ware plate. Dripped every which way along the plate, the green cilantro-peanut sauce, infused with coconut and pepper, balanced spicy with sweet superbly. The taste of each shrimp, covered in the dark green sauce, more than happily satisfied our expectations. Even after all the shrimp were gone, we continually tasted the sauce one more time, until it was all gone.

The entrees ranged from a Cuban press sandwich ($8) to a paella loca ($16) to a cilantro garlic marinated chicken breast ($12). As a token pasta dish, ravioli ($12) stuffed with spinach and gorgonzola is available. According to our waiter, the best entrees were the roasted pork tenderloin ($13) and the duck breast ($15). The pork is cooked very well and the tender meat is served with a chipotle BBQ sauce. The chipotle, a strong, dried jalapeno pepper, spices up the tangy BBQ sauce.

The popular burritos, either prepared entirely with vegetables ($9) or chicken and green chile ($11), were a bit disappointing. A plump, soft tortilla-encased burrito shares the plate with a salad. Inside the tortilla, in the vegetable case, is packed zucchini, yellow squash, corn, rice, eggplant, Jack cheese and black beans. The zucchini and yellow squash just was not exciting enough to carry the dish. Although quite hardy for the price, we would opt to spend a few more dollars and receive a better entree.

Similar to the burritos are the corn tamales. A modest cornhusk is filled with either roasted pork and corn ($9) or just corn ($7). Cilantro mint mojo apparently was inside the tamales. Unfortunately, this mojo seemed invisible - in appearance and taste - from the tamale. The extra flavor really could have spruced up what otherwise was an uninspired corn tamale. When we grew tired of the tamale, we were able to switch to the black beans and rice or salad that rounded out the plate.

The three desserts all sounded delicious. A coconut flan is dressed with mango mojo and fruit and the espresso cheesecake is drizzled with caramel and chocolate sauces. The bananas castro is an exciting ending to your meal. The bananas are sauteed in a mixture of brown sugar, rum and ginger, and then served warm over a heap of vanilla ice cream. Cinnamon spiced wafers flanked the bananas and ice cream. The soft glazed bananas gently melted the ice cream to create a delicious variation on a banana split. Each dessert is only $5 and makes for a wonderful finale.

The intimate atmosphere remains exciting; every look around the restaurant reveals something new. The knowledgeable wait staff is helpful and quick to recommend, but is relaxed enough that Mono Loco would be a great place to have an appetizer and margarita before a movie on the Downtown Mall. We've also heard Mono Loco's Sunday brunch is outstanding as well. If it parallels the dinner experience, we are lucky that Sunday is never more than seven days away.

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