Loba is a small, wood-lined den offering an urban sanctuary on the edge of the Biscayne Corridor’s cheap-to-chic MiMo District.
The adventure starts at the rear of the neighboring Royal Inn Motel, which offers free parking for restaurant patrons willing to negotiate its narrow, isolated alley. Next door, first-time restaurateur Jessica Sanchez, 28, has reinvented the former Namaste Indian restaurant into a warm, trendy spot named after the Spanish word for she-wolf, taking décor cues from a West Elm catalog.
Seven thick tables, including a long, communal one, are walled in by brick and reclaimed wood, with vertical air plants hung for decoration. Books and old cameras fill shelves behind the bar. A young wait staff works the terrazzo floor in black T-shirts with a message on the back urging diners to “stay hungry.”
Serving only dinner (brunch coming soon), the 4-month-old restaurant offers elevated home cooking that references Sanchez’s roots — her family formerly owned the Miami chain of Colombian restaurants called Patacón — along with healthy modern comfort food that playfully combines sweet and sour, crunchy and syrupy.
The one-page, affordable menu is divided by types of eaters: herbivores, piscivores and carnivores, preceded by seven eclectic small plates and six vegetable sides. Warm and crusty Zak the Baker bread is served upon request (yes, please) with sweet passionfruit butter.
Vincent Van Goat, a small plate of fried goat-cheese balls drizzled in honey and seasoned with black pepper, is a hot, sweet starter that pops with gooey goodness.
A three-way ceviche of fish and shrimp, with a trio of slightly spicy sauces that range from creamy onion to tomato to a base of peppers, comes with crispy plantains wrapped in brown paper. Our enjoyment of it was spoiled only by the arrival of our entrees moments later, leaving no time to enjoy the sampler.
The seafood dishes we tried were stellar. A whole fried snapper special, topped with arugula, fennel, radishes and a light lemon vinaigrette, was delightfully crispy on the outside, its sweet interior meaty and juicy. Salmon, also topped with greens and crunchy vegetables, was delicately pan-seared and moist.
Thick slices of rib eye, accompanied by a whopping fried green plantain (patacón) that’s served on its own platter, unfortunately didn’t get the same attention in the kitchen.
The steak was overcooked and chewy, and the accompanying guacamole tasted more like thin, day-old avocado spread than the creamy, firm dip we wanted to heap on our torn plantain pieces with diced tomatoes and rice. The portion easily could have fed two people. Instead, it sat half-eaten, next to our half-eaten ceviche.
MiMo Fried Chicken, dredged in seasoned flour and drizzled with honey, had a peppery, crunchy golden skin, but was dry inside and accompanied by a mac-and-cheese dish swimming in a pool of milk. The crispy kale promised with it was only three raw bits.
Desserts are inventive but one spatula shy of dreamy, particularly Frida’s Secret: a spicy Mexican-chocolate brownie under a scoop of sweet-corn ice cream, sprinkled with chocolate-dipped Corn Flakes. We adored the fire-and-ice combo, but the brownie was rock-hard.
With a staff of primarily college students, Loba has a lot of unsophisticated energy. Too bad that energy can’t help power the struggling air-conditioning system, fix the poor kitchen timing or repair the broken register.
With time and finesse, this newcomer could leave us like the collection of Pablo Neruda love poems that our bill was tucked into: full of desire and hope.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense.