Diner: Mystical Charm

Owner of La Tradición is a Michelangelo of Mexicana

In anticipation of a trip to Central America, I was excited to visit Covington's newest Mexican and Latin American restaurant, La Tradición. This isn't just a hole-in-the-wall serving up an authentic dish or two. It's a full-blown experience that takes you south-of-the-border to Mexico and beyond — to Central and South America and the Caribbean.

The owner, Tino, learned to cook from his grandmother in Mexico City, but his menu includes Hawaiian and Cuban sandwiches and burritos with exotic, spiced meats in the tradition of non-Mexican Latin countries. Besides an authentic dish, the restaurant is expanding as a nighttime gathering place for live music and dancing, with acts currently booked on weekends. There are plans to add Reggae on Thursdays and varied acts on Wednesdays.

If you go, spend a few minutes visiting with Tino. Look for a fortysomething man with long, silver hair and twinkling eyes that are both playful and wise. He's a Michelangelo of Mexicana: cook, decorator and entertainer. Besides running the restaurant, he also sings in Salsa Caliente, which performed the second time I visited.

The atmosphere is festive, but there's a certain mystical charm that makes you feel like you're inside a Frida Kahlo painting or a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story.

With seating for 150, the dining room is situated along windows facing Covington's East Fourth Street, with the long, rectangular space receding to a small bar, stage and dance floor in back. Walls and furnishings of every color and texture are adorned with beautiful painted handicrafts. Figure paintings, black-and-white photos of Zapatistas and Aztec-inspired drawings on thick, brown paper add an eloquent seriousness.

On my first weeknight visit, my friends and I were the only guests. We planted ourselves next to a wall covered in colorful Mexican crucifixes and ordered Margaritas ($4), waiting expectantly for our free chips and salsa. Instead, Tino appeared with a pair of dice for playing the game on placemats under our glass tabletop, a Mexican version of Shoots and Ladders called Escaleres y Serpientes ("snakes" instead of "shoots"). After our request for a little Tejano music had been filled, we were ready to eat.

The menu offers appetizers ($3.50-$5.50), salads ($3.50-$4.25), burritos ($4.95 lunch, $6.95 dinner) and tortas, or sandwiches ($4.50 lunch, $6.50 dinner). Adventurous diners might want to try Queso de Puerco, a sandwich with head cheese (I won't say more than it's not a dairy product).

We started with Choriqueso ($4.95): baked, white cheeses topped with ground chorizo and jalapenos for wrapping in soft, warm tortillas. The cheese had the sort of durability of chewing gum. We liked the flavors but would have appreciated more chorizo, and we were disappointed we didn't receive fresh salsa, as listed on the menu.

Everything else we tried was wonderful. Along with a choice of meat, the gargantuan burritos are packed with rice and beans and topped with lettuce, onion, tomato, jalapenos, sour cream and salsa. A rich, red-brown mole with hints of chocolate, nuts and chilies mingling with shredded chicken made the Pollo en Mole a hit. Bistec a la Mexicana featured strips of steak bursting with juice, complimented by the aromatics of fresh cilantro and vegetables. As with most authentic Latin food, nothing we tried was aggressively picante.

There are no vegetarian entrée options, but Tino was happy to prepare a meatless burrito with extra avocados for one friend. We also tried Torta Cubana, with tender, slow roasted pork, thinly sliced ham and Swiss cheese bulging between soft white bread called telera.

I returned the following Friday for an evening of dancing — salsa and merengue — when Tino's band was performing. I was happy to find a lively fiesta of drinking, music and dancing and a mix of Latino and other guests. After a few margaritas at the bar, I was on the dance floor testing out my salsa legs and practicing my Spanish. "Puedo baillar con ustedes?"

A few women were happy to teach me some basic steps before I paired up with partners. Just as I was slipping into the rhythm, Tino spotted me and started singing to the ridiculous pseudonym I'd given him on my previous visit. Next time I'll think before giving out pseudonyms I can't stand.

As I finish writing this story while trekking through Nicaragua, no other place in Cincinnati seems more attuned to this part of the world. I'm happy to know that, when I return, I'll have somewhere to go for the flavors of life I'm experiencing here.

Will La Tradición become a Cincinnati tradition? I hope so. This place should be full of smiling faces shouting "Salud!" over heaping plates of good food. ©

Go: 106 East Fourth St., Covington

Call: 859-261-6700

Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday; Dinner: (coming soon) 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday (tapas menu at 9 p.m. for dance enthusiasts)

Prices: Inexpensive

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Appetizers, salads and vegetarian burritos (on request)

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