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Take a look inside Malo, the bustling spot for Latin cuisine in downtown Des Moines. Kelsey Kremer/The Register

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In brief

  • Order a cocktail and soak it up with an order of tot’chos.
  • If you’re very hungry, very indecisive, or both, opt for Combo #17.
  • Tacos are mostly good, though some outshine others.

Full review

Don’t stop by Malo for lunch on a Wednesday when margaritas are half price and expect to go back to work in a productive manner. You won’t.

A large, hip space full of arty details like a floor-to-ceiling Lucha Libre wrestling figure and attention-grabbing light fixtures, Malo’s interior seems to fit its flavors — big, bold, and pretty spot-on.

On each of my visits to Malo, the restaurant was busy and bustling, loud with conversation and the din of background music. It lends almost a frenetic feel to the meal, as the servers are busy. But once a cocktail hits your hand, the pace perceptibly slows. The complimentary chips that arrive are thin, hot and crisp, whetting your appetite for what is to come.

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I sampled various drinks at Malo and they were all good, except the Michellada ($5), which was disappointingly bland. My favorite by far was the Hemingway Special ($9) with sweet white rum and cherry liqueur juxtaposed with tangy grapefruit and lime juices. The Eva Peron ($11) was keenly bitter with amaro and vermouth. Freshly fruity and alcoholic, the Sangria ($7) had not only the requisite wine, but also brandy, rum and triple sec. The Mezcal Mule ($10) was smoky and spicy and had a nice ginger bite to it. And the El Rey Margarita ($9) featured fresh-squeezed citrus juices, served up, and with leftovers in the cocktail shaker for seconds. The Federale Manhattan ($11) swapped out whiskey with mezcal for a welcome twist on a classic.

I loved that the "pick three" of the Salsa Trio ($5.99) included guacamole (good, if a little bland) and queso (compulsively dippable) options, but my favorite dip turned out to be the pico de gallo, flavorful despite out-of-season tomatoes.

The Fried Calamari ($10.99) was lightly dusted with cornmeal and fried to a delicate crispness. Fried rings of pickled jalapeno hiding among the calamari were little bursts of heat and brightness and were particularly exceptional in the lime aioli.

Drunken Nachos ($7.99 half, $10.99 full) are the epitome of what nachos should be — toppings and chips layered (toppings not JUST on top, but layered throughout), a tongue-thrilling clash of textures and temperatures. Cold sour cream, cool guacamole, molten melty queso, mashed black beans and pickled jalapenos. My only complaint was the shredded lettuce, which, once warmed by the chips, added a soggy note.

I typically eschew ordering anything with an embarrassing sounding name; I like to retain some semblance of dignity as I shove food in my face. But luckily, younger sisters are good for this sort of thing, as otherwise I would have missed out on the Tot’chos ($8.99/$13.49), perhaps the perfect bar food. The carne molida (seasoned ground beef), pico de gallo and chipotle crema were excellent, but what made this dish revolutionary was the square tater tots. It might seem a bit gimmicky, but when you do some quick back-of-the-napkin math, calling into play some high school geometry you thought you’d never use, you will quickly see that a typical cylindrical tater tot, with a radius of 7/16 inch, has approximately 5 1/2 inches of crusty edge, compared with the 1-inch cubes of Malo tots, for 12 inches — more than double the crunchy, crusty edges to sink your teeth into before you hit the soft interior.

Not all tacos at Malo are created equal. Standouts included the slow cooked shredded Chicken Tinga ($4.49), juicy with spice and topped with crisp cabbage, though drowning in too much of the chipotle crema (with half as much crema and some pickled onion, this would have been sublime). The Crispy Onion and Avocado ($5.99), with nutty wedges of avocado and thin salty tentacles of fried onion, and a vegan chipotle crema that had been made with almonds. I missed neither the meat nor the dairy it was so good. Grilled Skirt Steak ($6.99) minus the gringo cheese was closest to a true street taco in its execution, in that it was a seemingly simpler taco. The taste was anything but — it had a complex, meaty flavor, the layers of which were impossible to dissect given how seamlessly they melded. The Chipotle Shrimp ($6.99) was literally overflowing with tender smoky shrimp and did a much better job of integrating the chipotle crema.

The tacos showed no lack of creativity, but I occasionally found myself wanting Malo to practice some selective editing. The Cod ($4.99) taco was light, crispy and filled with tender fish, but in the Dos Pescados ($6.99) preparation, a too-sweet lobster slaw dominated the dish. The pineapple and tomatillo salsa on the Al Pastor ($5.99) tasted tinny, instead of bright and tangy, which cast this taco to the bottom of my list, despite the unctuous chile-marinated pork.

You won’t often find me choosing flour over corn tortillas, but at Malo, the flour tortillas outrank the corn by several stars. Both are homemade, and with each taco you can specify a preference. The corn tortillas have amazing flavor, but are so thick as to be unpliable and so dense as to risk filling you up too fast. The tacos here are substantial and the flour tortilla, with its tender layers of flour and fat, holds together nicely and is more manageable and accentuates the well-executed fillings without overshadowing them.

For the ordering indecisive, the #17 Combo ($22.49) offers up two of the above-mentioned skirt steak tacos, an enchilada and a tamale. It might sound a mite basic; let me assure you it is anything but. The heat in the Tamales Rojo De Barbacoa burns, in a most delicious way. The masa of the tamale is soft and slightly sweet, and serves to temper the heat of the juicy barbacoa — shreds of slow-cooked beef. The chicken enchilada oozes cheese, chunks of chicken and sweet corn, topped with piquant tomatillo salsa and a cheesy white sauce.

Under "most disappointing," I would file the Chilaquiles Con Queso ($16.99). The sunny-side-up egg on top was perfect but overall it was rather mushy and the flavor was pretty one-note. I’ve had better versions and think Malo could certainly improve upon this one.

Speaking of disappointing, the Tres Leches Cheesecake ($8) came close to avoiding that fate with an excellent, rich, creamy texture and delicate flavor, but the graham-cracker crust was heavy on the spice, overwhelming the cake, and my piece tasted like it had spent too much time poorly wrapped in a fridge.

Service on my visits to Malo was mostly very good, except for a Sunday when we were at the end of what seemed to be an incredibly busy brunch rush, when our server was not prompt and disappeared for long stretches toward the end of the meal. On other visits, servers were accommodating of special requests and thoughtful on the details (e.g. bringing a couple extra maraschino cherries to the table for my kids). The host stand is set apart from the restaurant, and attitude there was not as welcoming as you would like.

Overall, Malo is a strong restaurant with solid drinks and flavorful food in ample portions, in a fun, relaxed atmosphere.

Emily Ekle is a senior acquisitions editor for an academic publishing company in the area of psychology. Emily dines anonymously for her reviews in efforts to capture the authentic experience of a customer. For questions on Des Moines Register reviews, contact storytelling coach Lisa Rossi at lrossi@dmreg.

Malo

Critic's rating: 2½ stars

Food: 2½ stars

Ambiance: 3 stars

Service: 2 stars

Price: $4.49 to $28.99

Address: 900 Mulberry Street, Des Moines

Website: malodesmoines.com

Phone: 515-244-5000

Atmosphere: Trendy, busy, fun.

Recommended orders: Tot’chos, Combo #17, Chicken Enchilada, Chicken Tinga Taco, Cod Taco, Grilled Skirt Steak Taco

Sound: Background music.

Drinks: Full bar.

Open:

  • Sunday: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (brunch until 2 p.m.)
  • Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
  • Happy Hour, Monday-Friday: 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. (Half-price appetizers and tacos.)

Wednesday: All day half-off margaritas.

Wheelchair access: The restaurant is all on one level and wheelchair-accessible.

Allergen friendly/Willing to accommodate vegetarians? All tacos can be made with a lettuce wrap instead of a tortilla. All vegetarian options are listed on the menu. Speak with your server for special request and they will do their best to accommodate.

Kid friendly? Kid’s menu available. High chairs and booster seats available. Changing table available. (Brunch is free for children 12 and under)

What the stars mean

4 stars: (Extraordinary) Transcendent. A one-of-a-kind experience that sets the local standard.

3 stars: (Excellent) Superior. Memorable, high-quality food; exciting environs; savvy service; smart concept.

2 stars: (Good) Solid example of restaurant type.

1 star: (Fair) Just OK. A place not worth rushing back to. But, it might have something worth recommending: A view, a single dish, friendly service, lively scene.

No stars: (Poor) Below-average restaurant.

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