It’s been six years since the advent of Boston’s upscale-Mexican restaurant boom, prior to which it was difficult to find a Mex joint that wasn’t a modest traditional taqueria or an ancient indie doing more Yanquified fare. Nowadays, Boston has a dozen Mexican places with atmosphere swish enough for date night, cocktail programs and food that takes fanciful liberties with traditional flavors but is capable of landing some regional specifics. Burro Bar, which debuted recently in Brookline’s Washington Square with the popularity of Davis Square sibling the Painted Burro to live up to, falls firmly into that latter camp, delivering some pretty fine food in a cacophonous neighborhood bar eternally dressed up for Cinco de Mayo.
Owner/titular chef Joe Cassinelli is repped here by lieutenant Bosbeli Perez. He makes a good first impression on basics like high-quality tortilla chips, a smooth salsa with a bright tomato essence and a silken rendition of guacamole “El Mero Mero” ($9), simple and elemental and fine. Chicken tamale ahogada ($12) stuffs a fresh-masa wrapper with abundant chunks of smoky chicken tinga and “drowns” it in creamy tomato/chili salsa ranchera and three cheeses. That’s mighty gussied-up for a tamale, but it’s terrific. Doing Mexican street corn esquites ($11) off the cob is a practical concession to the shareable-plates concept here, and it’s likewise delicious: garlicky and fiery with acid bite from lime. Spicy green beans ($9) are not quite as interesting as a promised smoked-shrimp mole might lead you to expect, but at least they’re not underdone. Enmoladas ($12) live up better to their billing: crisp/tender pork carnitas in a finely complex black mole, given creamy bite with Mexican dairy.
Seafood plates are mostly pretty and mostly winners, notably shrimp al ajillo ($13), half a dozen big specimens atop a polenta-like cornmeal mush with loads of garlic and smoky chipotle butter: fabulous. Snapper and scallop ceviche ($13) is bright, tangy and accompanied by a dice of avocado, cukes and grapes, though at least one scallop was indifferently trimmed. Grouper con coconut ($14) has no such flaw, its crisp-sauteed filet sweetly complemented by creamy coconut/lime mole and vivid roasted poblanos.
Tacos ($6.50-$8 apiece) are where Burro Bar strays furthest from tradition. They’re almost uniformly overstuffed, ingredient-busy and saucy (causing some to fall apart easily); some combinations work better than others. Beef tongue ($6.50) is among the simplest and best, its modest accents of smoked-tomato mayo and jicama/hazelnut slaw not overwhelming the mild offal flavor. Chorizo de la casa ($6.50) is a hearty breakfast taco: excellently spicy ground sausage, a gooey fried egg, potato and chipotle mayo. Calamari ($7.50) is loaded with breaded squid so overfried it registers as nothing but crunch. Crispy tofu ($7) is a misguided mess of uncrisp tofu logs and way too much blue cheese. The veggie ($7) is full of brilliant elements—carrot/habañero mole, roasted mushrooms, pea tendrils—but stringy whole ramps and scallions are impossible to bite through. A short rib “double stack” ($8) is more successful, wrapping crunchy and soft tortillas around short-rib carnitas with poblano/onion salsa: fatty and luscious.
The genuine surprise hit here is queso fundido, a puddle of melted oaxaca, asadero and cotija cheeses adorned with vegetables and crunchy bits for scooping up with chips or twirling around a fork. It sounds tame, but we were dazzled by combinations like squash & cauliflower ($15), with creamy pockets of heirloom squash puree, chunks of roasted cauliflower and blackened pepitas, as well as nopale and poblano rajas ($13), again delivering a charming mix of textures: roasted-pepper strips, charred corn, chili/crema puree and pulverized corn nuts. This unprepossessing dish turned out to be uncommonly rich and fascinating.
Burro Bar laps many of its swanky-Mex brethren with a superior bar program. Good specialty cocktails include the refreshing 2nd Ave Spritz ($11) of gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray and an outstanding house margarita ($10), though pours are not gigantic. The beer list is fairly crafty for the genre, with six draft ($6-$14), 13 packaged ($4-$18) and three large-format ($25-$38) options. The list of 13 wines ($10-$16/glass, $40-$64/bottle) is unmemorable, but the agave spirits list—100 tequilas (mostly $5-$12 for a 1-oz pour), 36 mezcals ($9-$26), one raicilla ($9) and four sotols ($6-$8), tequila’s rougher, grappa-like cousin—is a huge asset.
With its smallish, tight room (52 dining room seats, 12 at the bar), Burro Bar is almost always punishingly loud at nearly every seat in the house except those on the 20-seat patio, though nights when the street windows are open require less yelling to get drink orders right. The sweet, informal service manages to muddle amiably through the roar, but the din and lack of dessert discourage lingering (which may be the point). For fans of the fancy-Mex format, where sharing and tippling in a convivial, happening-feeling setting are more important than fealty to the source cuisine, Burro Bar is not only very good, but about as good as it gets.
Hours: Dinner, 5-11 pm daily; late night menu, 11 pm-12:30 am., Fri.-Sat.; brunch, 11 am-3 pm, Sat.-Sun.; bar menu, 3-5 pm, Sat.-Sun. Reservations: Yes Parking: Metered street spaces Liquor: Full bar
Burro Bar 1665 Beacon St., Brookline (617-277-0427) burrobarbrookline.com