It is apt that Lucha Tigre, a new Latin-Asian fusion restaurant in Chapel Hill, took over the former Flying Burrito space on Martin Luther King Boulevard.
The restaurant's name is a nod to lucha libre, a Mexican wrestling tradition characterized by masked wrestlers and acrobatic theatrics. No one's launching burritos from the kitchen, but Lucha Tigre's showmanship is like that of a brazen luchador.
A sleek design envelops the restaurant and bar, its ambiance glowing like red embers and cooled by low lighting and black accents. Along the dining room wall, massive illustrated portraits stare menacingly at diners: a Sumo wrestler and a tiger battle over one table, a masked luchador donned in a dapper suit leans regally over another.
Much like a wrestling match, a strong theatrical mystique is present, and not merely in appearance. The fusion menu rambles through Latin America and Asia, full of twists and turns and even comic relief. (A common ingredient listed on the changing menu is simply stated as "Ridiculous.")
Yet a stellar performance must have a sharp delivery. On that count, Lucha Tigre is almost there.
As with many new restaurants, Lucha Tigre vastly improved over its first two months, ironing out details in the kitchen and fine-tuning the knowledge of the waitstaff.
On the first trip, three friends and I went, and we discovered it was buy one get one free day for empanadas. A punchy empanada list veers from the traditional and welcomes a new realm with Thai peanut and red curry chicken. Unfortunately, neither was very exciting, with little intrigue in the flavor. Like an unexpected dropkick, the roasted poblano corn put up the best fight and won us all over. Tender and crunchy corn, fresh off the cob, and roasted poblano peppers eased into melted cheese and provided a texturally pleasing filling to the fried, homemade dough casing.
The salsa sampler had us speculating on whether anything was homemade. But by my third trip, the kitchen had improved to create a colorful palette of four salsas. The verde, or green, blended roasted tomatillos and fresh cilantro. The roja, or red, came out smoky and subdued with a hint of musky sweetness.
What put us into a submission hold was the sharpshooter: the habanero. The sunshine yellow salsa started with a kick but pinned us both down with a fruity, almost melon aftertaste. We were left with no choice but to lap it up with one of the three accompanying homemade chips: sweet potato, wonton and tortilla. The pico de gallo provided a nice palate cleanser, though more lime would have brightened it up.
For a freshly squeezed dose of lime, the tiger shrimp ceviche is a hefty appetizer for two. Mounded in a martini glass, the plump chunks of citrus-marinated shrimp and avocado make up a light staple in a menu rich with fried food.
Guacamole is a standard menu item. Skip the sake ginger variety (it lacks hints of sake or ginger) and go for the chipotle-pepita guacamole. Crushed, toasted green pumpkin seeds embellish a textured dip, and it works.
The tacos on the menu are too small and simple to be $3 a pop. Your best bet is the Mu Shu pork or tofu. Though not traditionally made, the filling includes crunchy slaw topping.
The pork belly buns (one of the menu items that includes "Ridiculous") are reminiscent of the famed sweet and chewy Baohaus buns in New York City. The belly itself melts as it should, sticking slightly to the sides of the bun before it's dunked in the accompanying peanut sauce.
The pork torta was like a high-flying wrestling maneuver. The exciting sandwich combines shredded pork in a sweet, subtle marinade with a crisp, creamy slaw influenced by Southern grit. The soft bread is shaped like a Mexican-style panaderia roll, warm from the oven.
Desserts change so quickly that I never was able to catch the tres leches. Rave reviews urge me to go back; one friend wrote me: "Time slowed down when I ate the three milks."
The bar itself gets rowdy at night, and the buzz is worth it. Cocktails rotate seasonally, featuring organic blackberries, fresh rosemary and hand-squeezed lime juice—the latter evident especially in the margaritas. The liquor list varies from 40 to 100 tequilas.
Before you venture out, check the restaurant's Facebook page because specials change daily. With each visit, I found the dishes improved in terms of technique and brighter flavors. With more practice, this fighting tiger will really show its teeth.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Lucha Tigre shows its teeth."