Opening anything on Lansdowne Street besides a cold one seems risky. But last month Ken Oringer's taqueria, La Verdad, opened across the street from Fenway Park. The restaurant is a shrewd nod to baseball's ethnic evolution -- Boston's, too. It's also of two minds about what it is.
There is the taqueria itself, a brightly lit, cheerily decorated (flowery tablecloths, for instance) minimalist box that resembles an actual taqueria. From the counter, you can see the kitchen, which shares the same lighting. This is a space made for a hot, pre-game summer evening, and it's unlike anything else on the strip of bars and nightclubs, except maybe the sports radio studio on the park's street level, which is another marvel of basic transparency.
Like that radio booth, which is attached to a monster, the taqueria is dwarfed by the adjacent bar that is many times its size. It's a big brown space that's sort of rustic and dimly lit (the flat-screen TVs shine brightest), and the speakers definitely work (Tito Nieves's "I Like It Like That" never sounded more likely to cause hearing loss). In other words, the bar at La Verdad might be the truth: a plea not only to be taken seriously as a Lansdowne Street destination but to be indistinguishable from the neighbors.
Basically, Oringer -- who owns Clio in the Back Bay and the Spanish tapas joint Toro in the South End, and has just opened the Tremont Street steakhouse KO Prime -- is catering to concert goers, Sox fans, and garden variety carousers, for whom La Verdad is another place to gather and drink before an event starts or after it ends. It's another license to be rambunctious, as handfuls of jilted Sox fans were the other night after rain washed out a date with the Tigers. But the rambunctious will at least eat well.
In fact, the Fenway Frank should be a little concerned. A taco at La Verdad is, on average, cheaper (about $2.50). The pescado is fried fish with pureed avocado and chipotle mayonnaise. The other 10 lavishly conceived tacos (including one with turkey, mole , and cinnamon, one with smoked tongue, and another with "grandma's" tripe) are perfectly delicious alternatives to the mysterious joys of the ballpark hot dog. So is the ear of grilled corn, which comes slathered in homemade mayo, chili powder, and buttery cotija cheese. It's plump and juicy enough to be served on a bun.
The soul that went into the tacos and the corn is missing elsewhere. The grilled sandwiches grow on you, but for all the ingredients packed into them, they're curiously flavorless, as if the herbs, cheese, molasses-chipotle, mayo, and avocado cancel each other out. The roasted chicken is dull, from the dry bird and the refried black beans to the whole, allegedly caramelized plantains, which could be mistaken for corn dogs.
More than one person has complained about the service at La Verdad. One friend warned that it's as atrocious as the tacos are authentic. (Last week, he waited 30 minutes for two such takeout tacos and missed the beginning of a concert.) Another friend said she couldn't get a table in the bar, not even one of the many empty ones (over the phone an employee said La Verdad doesn't take reservations). So she sat in the takeout room, where she says she was happier anyway.
On a recent Wednesday, the service was extremely attentive. The same friend who couldn't get noticed a few nights before couldn't keep the bartender away. And one waitress, an affable blonde, was full of recommendations, both when asked and when not. She'd come by occasionally to inquire about the food. Once in a while, she'd drop in just to say something was "glorious." (She was talking about that roast chicken.)
Whether you're working at La Verdad or stopping by for a beer, it's a fun place -- once you've accepted and embraced the rowdy bar atmosphere. Of course, as authentic as that part of the restaurant is, it seems at odds with the verdad of the other part. For now, those authenticities appear to be dueling. Right now the TGI Fridays part of La Verdad is eating the cute little taqueria alive.
La Verdad One Lansdowne St., 617-351-2580. Entrees $2.50-$18.95