Everybody has a friend who orders a burger at any restaurant, regardless of its specialty or ethnicity. My tongue itched with disapproval when mine chose the cheeseburger at Café Hola, but I swallowed all arguments when my nearly vacant beef tacos arrived alongside her $6.95 choice: a chubby mass of ground beef shot through with pulverized jalapenos, onions, bell peppers and an inexplicable tenderness that even overcame abandonment on the grill. A $2 side of purist guacamole and bumpy fries that cracked open to sweet, moist hushpuppy innards helped define a new genus of south-of-the-border burgers. My girlfriend doesn't know this, but I returned two days later for my own.
This beefy victory illustrates two points. First, never forsake the quest for perfection in the all-beef patty; secondly, when Café Hola excels -- while it isn't always within the rules of authentic Mexican cooking -- you can taste the results in a $10 bill.
Take the $4.95 chips and salsa starter: a bottomless basket with your choice of three from Chef Corey Jacobs' (a Vaqueros veteran) quartet of sundry salsas. Smitten at first bite, I forever will take every third mouthful at Café Hola dressed in salsa verde (thick and tangy with tomatillos and lime). While Jacobs' gentlest salsa is a tomato-based puree bursting with corn and flecked with the black remnants of roasted vegetables, only jalapeno heads could finish a serving of the aptly termed "caliente" salsa. Don't mistake the fiery green blend of vinegar and chiles for guacamole like one friend did, but do reserve it for careful dabs of chicken taquitos and cheesy empanadas later. While the fourth version, a tame pico de gallo, makes multiple appearances on entree plates, the better three salsas are banished to appetizer land. Order them at the meal's outset to prepare for potential monotony down the line.
Puckery margaritas also keep pace, especially on Mondays and Tuesdays when pitchers are half-price. On these libation-drenched evenings, you might spot a cook bouncing through the raucous rooms wiping off tables to rescue servers who fight the momentum of partying crowds to deliver food hot. In a rewarding act of contrition, the tequila flows. The House margarita, on sale for $10 a pitcher, is a fine stir of Sauza Silver, orange curacao and lime. Try the cleaner, crisp Prima version with Herradura Silver and Grand Marnier though, and you'll gladly hand over the additional two Washingtons for each pitcher.
Sangria also is discounted twice a week, but the sugary, purplish juice is a headache waiting to happen (and it did). Sweet, in fact, clings to much of Café Hola's food, as does creamy cheese (likely from a melted white Mexican cheese called asadero). There are the logs of sugared masa and shredded pork, all soaked in sweet chipotle-mango barbecue sauce and rolled up in dried corn husks ("Hondurian tamales"); the crawfish and cheesy enchiladas topped with brothy green chile sauce; the spicy shrimp and cream cheesy quesadilla with more barbecue sauce; and chicken nachos smothered in jalapeno ranch dressing and melted cheeses (not as Kraft-ish as they sound). Less than $10 each, the above dishes are utterly pleasing on their own. When a table of four orders one of each, however, the sum total hits the taste buds with the surge of a dairy cow nursed on sweet clover. Sour cream flavored with pungent ancho chiles and a thick "vinaigrette" made from fresh corn also contribute to the condiment rotation.
Flavor repetition is difficult to avoid in a restaurant built on economy -- a mission I don't care to scoff at. The cafe's proprietor, Musa Ulusan, also owns Fellini's Café, which opened nearby on Carrollton Avenue six months before Café Hola's February debut. Along with bottom-line prices, the two restaurants share happy colors (see Café Hola's hot pink exterior and striped rooms inside), laid-back service (Café Hola's employee dress code hedges on beachwear) and merry atmosphere. Despite the cavernous cement surroundings, dingy memories of the former Palmer's Jamaican restaurant make Café Hola look like the Ritz.
Additional edibles stood out in flavor and, occasionally, authenticity. Grill-charred green onions (whiskers and all) doused with coarse salt and lime made a sunny complement when ordered with black bean soup hopped up on Dos Equis, deepened with ham hock and brightened with fresh cilantro. A crispy corn taco shell soggy with shredded pork and the smoky-sweet barbecue sauce had the succulent effect of a crusty baguette dripping with roast beef and debris. Light or finicky eaters benefit from the under-adorned asada platter of grilled chicken, vegetables and an astounding pile of portobello mushrooms. Alone, I polished off a seamless flan, trailing my spoon through squiggles of caramel sauce. Lapping at the caramel again with cinnamon-sugared plantains and vanilla bean ice cream made resisting Angelo Brocato's across the street painless.
All told, Café Hola's spirit can be outlined by a few easy principles: burgers too grand for the children's menu, salsas that carry the party, and a downright accessible, Mexican-inspired menu that tastes even better with clear sap from the agave plant.