Ask yourself: Are you the kind of person who is okay paying $9 for chips and salsa? Does that answer change if the chips are freshly made, and the tamarind salsa is a sweet and spicy mashup so unique and delectable, it should be bottled and sold in stores?
Are you okay with dining in what essentially feels like the extension of a hotel lobby? Does that answer change if it’s the coolest lobby in town, bursting with modern design, jewel-toned couches, and brass chandeliers?
Such are the quandaries posed by La Neta, a high-end Mexican restaurant inside the chic Hoxton hotel, headed by former Chalino chef/owner Johnny Leach and Submarine Hospitality, which also brings us Ava Gene’s and Tusk.
I, for one, am comfortable paying for the chips and salsa (make it $16 to add guacamole, but it’s not necessary), which cost about the same at Leach’s now-closed Chalino on North Williams. I also love the cozy vibes in the Hoxton’s lobby (and recommend grabbing a Proud Mary coffee from its café and hanging out to work during a sleepy weekday).
But really, it’s once you’re seated and munching on those $9 chips that the real work starts. While there is much good on the menu at La Neta, there are also many wild misfires.
The service has always been top notch, with friendly and attentive servers, especially at dinner. However, this didn’t help when we waited 90 minutes for an order of two dishes during a busy brunch service. The free glasses of bubbles and chips and guac brought when we wilted from low blood sugar didn’t improve the churro waffle ($14) that arrived cold, despite the wait.
At dinner, don’t skip the sleepy-sounding tlacoyo ($12), a torpedo-shaped blue-corn masa with rutabaga, oyster mushrooms, epazote herb, and a dollop of crema with thin slices of pickled sweet onion. It doesn’t look like much, but the flavors and texture took me back to Mexico City in a big way.
Similarly, an arctic char ceviche ($18) is acidic and bright—raw fish was a specialty at Chalino, too—but a Dungeness crab camp-echana ($18) was a seafood cocktail swamp, with the red sauce completely drowning the delicate crab, shrimp, and mussels within.
The burger is $15 and comes with a few large leaves of lightly dressed butter lettuce, but it’s an early promise of what happens when the flavors gel at La Neta. A 30-day aged beef is draped in queso and crunchy iceberg on a sesame bun, set off by a creamy and spicy three-chile secret sauce that’s all the right kinds of balanced. Unlike the lunch-time buttermilk fried fish tacos ($10), two perfectly fried pieces marred by serrano hot sauce that was so spicy it was nearly inedible—my lunch buddy and I wound up eating the fish and cabbage out of the tortilla to avoid the heartburn.
Large plates hover just under $30 and were all uniformly average. I miss the bolder risks that Leach took at Chalino, like a pork chop augmented with a cascabel chile mole and golden raisins, as opposed to a half chicken ($28) totally drenched in the stuff, to the exclusion of any other flavor, at La Neta.
Mezcal- and tequila-heavy, the cocktails were well balanced, and a spicy margarita is always a good flex. Desserts, also designed by Leach, were uniformly great. A friend, accustomed to those sad, dry churros sold at theme parks, was converted by these plush puppies, with a Proud Mary coffee and chocolate dipping sauce. A burnt bay leaf and caramelized pineapple flan ($8) is a complex version of what can be a very bland pudding, and the chocolate corn tart ($8), with toasted marshmallow and a flickering of chile, was so good I ordered it twice.
La neta literally translates to “the net” in Spanish, which is apt because eating there can be a drag. But it’s more commonly used as a slang term to mean “legit,” which is also the case if the kitchen is firing on all cylinders. Go, and form your own interpretation.
*Full disclosure: I was comped a stay at the Hoxton and my first meal there; three subsequent meals and another stay were not.