Dining Review

Lucha Tigre diners in Chapel Hill walk away winners

CorrespondentSeptember 5, 2013 

  • Lucha Tigre

    746 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill



    Cuisine: Latin American, Asian

    Rating:* * * 

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: Hipster with a recurring motif of lucha libre wrestlers and tigers

    Noise Level: moderate

    Service: hit or miss

    Recommended: ceviche, spicy bulgogi bowl, lamb guisado, empanadas (savory and sweet)

    Open: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner nightly, brunch Sunday

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.

    The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: * * * * *  Extraordinary * * * *  Excellent. * * *  Above average. * * Average. *  Fair.

    The dollar signs defined:$ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Ladies and gentlemen! Señoras y señores! Welcome to the Gastrodome! Tonight’s featured bout is a matchup that aficionados of epicurean sport have been salivating over for months, a first-time encounter between a brash newcomer and a seasoned veteran.

In this corner, wearing a hipster decor with a recurring motif of masked lucha libre wrestlers and tigers – the scrappy tag team of Latin American and Asian cuisines that burst onto the local scene last December in Chapel Hill, Lucha Tigre!

In the other corner, weighing in at – well, we can just skip over that part – a perennial contender that needs no introduction: Your Jaded Palate.

And there’s the bell!

Round 1: Lucha Tigre comes out swinging with an impressive volley of 37 tequilas and 22 sakes. The selection of wines (all Spanish or South American) is limited, but a global beer offering is solid. Only bottled and canned brews are currently available, though Lucha Tigre’s manager (owner Khoa Zinh, who learned the ropes at the similarly spunky Five Star in Raleigh) says he’s working on a local draft option.

Following through with exotic cocktails such as Mexican Mule and Thai Chili Cilantro Lime Martini, the bar has Your Jaded Palate on the ropes by the end of the round.

Round 2: The salsa sampler comes with a ticket price of $4, but that gets you four feisty dips (rojo, verde, habanero and pico de gallo) and a basket filled with house-fried variations on the chip theme: tortilla, wonton and sweet potato. Three bucks more gets you a ringside seat for your choice of freshly made guacamole: sake ginger or chipotle pepita.

The rookie stumbles with flash-fried green beans in soy and garlic, which the menu touts as “crispy.” “Halfway between crunchy and soft” would be a more apt description.

Pork belly buns look like a winner, but the steamed buns are somewhat dried out on the surface. It’s a minor foul that might well be charged not to the kitchen, but to a wait staff that varies widely in proficiency.

Lucha Tigre regains form with tiger shrimp ceviche, marinated in lime and punched up with orange zest. Blistery-crusted fried empanadas – Thai peanut chicken and roasted poblano corn – bring the round to a convincing close, leaving Your Jaded Palate reeling.

Round 3: Your Jaded Palate isn’t prepared for the entree round, which starts off with a flurry of taco plates and rice bowls. Tacos come three to an order, with mix-and-match possibilities ranging from braised Asian pork to chicken al pastor. Alternatively, you can order individual tacos at the bar.

The spicy bulgogi bowl, which serves up tatters of Korean barbecued beef over savory juice-soaked rice, is a solid take-down move.

Fans of Five Star won’t be disappointed with Heat Seeker tiger shrimp, a piquant stir-fry with julienne vegetables that Zinh picked up during his training camp days at that veteran establishment.

By now, fans are wondering whether the youthful contender’s stamina will hold. Lamb guisado settles that question decisively. Your Jaded Palate is caught by surprise by the dish, which is not the rustic stew implied by “guisado.” Instead, it’s a lavish contemporary interpretation: a five-bone rack of lamb, expertly roasted and cut into chops, then fanned out over a canvas of black beans, hominy, Brussels sprouts and orange segments. The presentation leaves no doubt that Lucha Tigre is ready for the big time.

Round 4: Sensing the end of the bout, the rookie finishes strong with dessert.

Served in pairs, Nutella-banana empanadas deliver a one-two punch of gooey-licious center and blistery crust in a portion that’s just right for sharing.

Lucha Tigre has a handful of other homemade desserts in reserve, too, including a tempting tres leches cake. But it isn’t needed tonight. Just as Your Jaded Palate is about to throw in the towel, the final bell rings.

The post-game wrap-up: In the end, it’s a split decision of the best kind, as both contestants walk away winners. Even so, Your Jaded Palates wants a rematch.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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