Hola! Downtown is a winner

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16 Jun

Hola! Downtown is a winner

Marcos Rodriguez, managing partner of the rapidly growing Hola! group of Mexican-Peruvian restaurants, is a man who rarely sits still.

After opening the first Hola! in east Bend’s Forum Shopping Center in 2007, Rodriguez added successful cafes in the Old Mill District and in Sunriver. And in April, he established a fourth Hola! in the St. Clair Place complex in downtown Bend.

Its large windows looking upon Minnesota Avenue just east of Bond Street, the colorful new Hola! is far from the first restaurant to fill this space. A series of bistro bars — Barcelona, 28 and (most recently) Tart — have preceded it in the past decade.

Each of those had modest success, but Rodriguez arrives with two aces in the hole: First, he has earned a strong following of regulars at his other three restaurants, which is carrying to the new outlet. Second, the home offices of commercial real estate broker Peter Lowes, his financial partner, are just a couple of doors down the street in St. Clair Place.

Alternately dubbed Hola! 4 and Hola! Downtown, the new restaurant maintains the same Nuevo Latino menu as the other shops, with some variations — specifically, a greater emphasis on small-plate tapas, including five different ceviches.

Ceviche and pupusas

In the new restaurant’s opening weeks, Rodriguez has wavered on his menu, in part because the downtown kitchen is much smaller than those of the other three Hola! establishments.

Initially, he installed a tapas-heavy menu, then replaced it with one featuring full entrees in response to patrons’ requests.

Now he is reintroducing the broad selection of small plates while maintaining the list of entrees. And I think that’s the right decision: Why please only a few when you can please everyone?

I am a huge fan of ceviche, the dish composed of fresh raw fish, marinated in lemon and/or lime juices and spiced with chilies. The Hola! restaurants use ahi, halibut, shrimp and other seafood as available, but my favorite is Peruvian-style ceviche tradicional.

On my most recent visit, this was made with tilapia and seasoned with thin slices of red onion, cilantro and aji amarillo (yellow Andean chilies). It was topped with kernels of roasted cancha (corn nuts) and a slice of bright-orange yam, and served with a shot glass of the citrus marinade, “leche de tigre” (tiger’s milk). It was wonderful.

Pupusas are neither Mexican nor Peruvian in origin, but these filled, hand-made corn tortillas have found their way onto the Hola! Downtown menu as a Salvadoran dish. My favorite of three varieties is the one filled with cotija cheese; ground chicharron pork and potatoes are also very good. This snack food is served with a saucy curtido slaw.

Potatoes and quinoa

Another of my favorite dishes from the Hola! Downtown menu is Costillitas de Puerco con Aji Amarillo. Costillitas are baby back ribs, crusted with the Peruvian grain called quinoa, grilled then topped with a sweet-and-sour, yellow-chile barbecue sauce. The meat is fall-off-the-bone tender.

Hola! serves its ribs atop causitas, scoops of cold potato cake, purple and yellow in color, infused with key lime juice. They are topped with red onion and cilantro, and presented with an unusual leche criolla, a milk-based salsa.

Whereas Mexican cuisine highlights corn and flour, Peruvian cuisine uses a lot of potatoes. One of the best of its dishes is papas rellenas, or stuffed potatoes. Crusted in quinoa, filled with ground beef and cheese, this trio of mashed-potato treats is topped with red onions and a delicate yet spicy sauce.

Quinoa is a popular ingredient in other Peruvian plates. The Ensalada Espinacar (spinach salad) feature the nutritious grain along with portobello mushrooms, finely grated cheese and a honey-citrus dressing.

Carne Azada is a more frequently seen Mexican-style beef dish. Hola! takes tender, marinated skirt steak, grills the meat and serves it with chimichuri sauce, guacamole, smoky-flavored black beans, rice and tortillas.

New to the menu is delicious “chocoflan” upside-down cake. Topped with strawberries and mint leaves, it is half traditional light, molded flan pudding and half rich chocolate cake.

Colorful decor

Wildly colorful design, seen especially in large-scale wall paintings, adds to the intimate appeal of Hola! Downtown. In particular, a mirror image of the restaurant’s name is reflected in proper perspective in a giant mirror hanging behind the bar.

Although the restaurant itself offers limited seating at a long, curving bar and no more than 10 surrounding tables, there is additional seating in an adjacent interior courtyard within St. Clair Place. Here live jazz musicians perform every Wednesday night, and a variety of other events — including a Thursday ladies’ night and a Monday men’s cigar night — draw regular crowds.

Servers, all clad in black, are excellent. The bar staff, headed by Braden Harrison, is swift and friendly, while table service is as speedy as the small kitchen allows.

With four restaurants under the Hola! umbrella, Marcos Rodriguez finds himself shuttling from one to the next on a nightly basis. Fortunately for the group, he has good people running each individual restaurant. At the downtown shop, manager Richard Maurer runs a tight ship, overseeing all aspects of the operation.

As a regular patron, I appreciate that. Bring on the ceviche.

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