The word emporium — a store carrying a wide variety of merchandise — pretty much captures the essence of Coba Cocina.
The original Coba is a magnificent Mayan ruin in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Lexington's Coba — part restaurant, part bar (two of them), part sweets shop and part aquarium, set in a gold-domed, two-story building large enough to evoke a small arcade — is alive and well, and pitches to a wide audience.
If brightly-colored fanciful pastries or the time-transporting fun of bubble gum-flavored ice cream beckon, you will find them in the section called Cocoh! Confectioner. Bar diners can sit upstairs in Cobar for a view of the action below, or drink and eat at the downstairs bar contiguous with the bustling restaurant.
Surely Coba's unique selling point, however, is its centrally located jellyfish aquarium that the restaurateurs says is the largest, privately owned of its kind anywhere. Inside it, moon jellies, aka Aurelia labiate, drift about in the vertical tube of water. It is, without a doubt, a wow factor — as is the whole Coba phenomenon.
This diversity and extravagance means that the food, while inexpensive and fun, has a lot to compete with.
My favorite items on the Latin-inspired menu are the ones that commit to bold flavor.
You can play it safe with appetizers like guacamole, quesadillas or nachos, but there are more interesting options, like sweet corn tamale cakes perked up with pico de gallo. I noticed several other diners digging into the lettuce wraps with grilled chicken and black beans, although peeling the raggedy leaves off an unadorned chunk of iceberg made them a bit too messy and DIY for me.
Honestly, I most enjoyed just munching on chips with a couple of flights (there are five to a flight) of the wonderful fresh salsas that have their own passport-style menu. From the 14 choices, I loved the habanero peppers paired with pineapple and the spicy salsa verde with plenty of jalapeños and cilantro. On the milder side, there are well-executed dips like avocado ranch and chile con queso.
Some of the entrees also provide a chance to sample salsas. Take, for instance, the enchilada platter. The cheese and onion enchilada is topped with chile con carne. The picadillo is stuffed with ground beef stew and covered with chile con queso. The spinach and mushroom enchilada is napped in tangy tomato-based ranchero. Like a majority of the main courses, this enormous dinner was served with creamy refried beans and a Mexican rice generous with vegetables.
Coba does a nice job with soft tacos, too. What they lack in salsa they make up for with peppers. Sautéed poblanos complement strands of tender brisket in the filling, and chunks of battered white fish avoid any connotation of fish and chips with a generous dose of poblano slaw. It is likewise the addition of honey jalapeños and Yucatecan pickled red onions in the al pastor chicken tacos, rather than their avocado "salad" and sweet grilled pineapple, which create a pop.
Because this is indeed a restaurant for every taste and preference, you will also find a variety of the Western Hemisphere's less "ethnic" dishes, from the traditional cheeseburger to a salmon filet made contemporary with an agave glaze. The menu thoughtfully indicates items that are gluten-free, and provides a "star system" to guide the uninitiated through spice levels.
But what makes the experience of Coba Cocina truly special for me is the array of salsas and, of course, a chance to feel childlike wonder at the magical, surreal slow dance of many moon jellies.
Address: 2041 Richmond Rd.
Phone: (859) 523-8484
Hours: Restaurant: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun., 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Bar: 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Sun., 4 p.m.-11:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 4 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Fri.-Sat. Bakery/gelateria: 7:30 a.m.-10:15 p.m. Sun., 6:30 a.m.-10:45 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 6:30 a.m.-11:45 p.m. Fri., 7:30 a.m.-11:45 p.m. Sat. Brunch: 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Sun.
Other: Parking lot. Credit cards accepted. Family- and child-friendly. Full bar. Vegetarian options available. Lunch and brunch menus available. Starters, soups and salads, $3-$11; entrees, $8.50-$25; side dishes, $2-$3; five-salsa flight, $5.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.