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Published: Thursday, 12/7/2006

Restaurant review: Kokopelli Sonoran Grill **

The names of several Mexican restaurants in the greater Toledo area obviously were chosen to honor various objects of personal interest or affection. A few examples are Ventura's (matriarch), Mi Hacienda (ranch), Abuelo's (grandpa), Amigo's (friend), El Matador (bullfighter), and El Salto (waterfall).

But the restaurant that takes the cake is Kokopelli Sonoran Grill, which opened last February. It takes its name from a fertility god, pictured in four glowing murals on the wall of the restaurant, located on the fringe of Westfield Franklin Park at Talmadge Road and Sylvania Avenue.

An ancient revered god of agriculture and human sexuality among native Americans in the Southwest, Kokopelli is shown as a hump-backed, flute-playing, dancing fool. For a deity with 3,000-year-old roots, in the murals he looks pretty frisky for his age.

Kokopelli the restaurant is a small chain originating in Arizona. It advertises the food as "healthy, fast, and fresh," prepared from recipes indigenous to the dry Sonoran Desert area of Mexico. "Fast" here translates into a cafeteria line, menu boards, pre-prepared ingredients, self-service beverage machines, food trays, and no servers in the bare-bones dining room.

As for the food, it can be lumped into five main categories: nachos, burritos, quesadillas, tacos, and taco salads. Protein choices are chicken, pork carnitas, steak, shrimp, and mahi mahi. Vegetable additions include tomatoes, red and green peppers, pinto or black beans, and guacamole, along with salsas, sour cream, and, for dessert, cinnamon chips.

Considering the large number of Mexican restaurants that call the Toledo area home, it's a wonder that another fast-food outlet would attempt to tackle such formidable competition. On the plus side, much of the Sonoran fare has a nice, chipotle-pepper kick, such as the fat, spicy burrito. The warm quesadillas drip with melted Monterey Jack cheese and a choice of guacamole, sour cream, and pico de gallo. The meals are inexpensive, most of them in the $4 to $7 range. They're promptly plated, and tips aren't required.

On the thumbs-down side, the "warm" soft-shell tacos we ordered were stone cold three times running. Recently, we had to nix a fish taco because there was no mahi-mahi. In addition, the building's high ceilings make it hard to hear ordinary conversation, and high-intensity spotlights tend to obscure some of the words on the menu boards.

As a further disappointment, Kokopelli also discontinued an entire category of dinner entrees. "We quit them a couple of months ago. I don't know why," a cashier said. The dinners sure sounded tempting: grilled chicken Sedona with poblano chile; braised pork shoulder with chiles and charred tomatoes; Sonoran-seasoned steak with garlic and herbs, and margarita shrimp flavored with the fixings of margarita drinks. They have been replaced with steak and chicken platters.

Speaking of margaritas, premixed classic and strawberry versions are available, dispensed from squirt jars. No other alcoholic beverages are available.

Contact Bill of Fare at fare@theblade.com



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