Kokopelli, the flute-tooting Hopi trickster fertility god whose emasculated likeness appears on more tie-dyed T-shirts, skateboards, beach towels, and fanny packs than Bob Marley’s, arrived in Wicker Park a few months ago in the form of yet another upscale taco joint. If the neighborhood seems to have hit critical mass for this particular kind of cheffy taqueria (see Big Star, Antique Taco, Takito Kitchen, Authentaco, and occasionally Xoco Bistro), it’s because the City Council secretly rezoned it as a taco increment financing district, subsidizing the proliferation of $4 tacos.
In this case, Kokopelli comes to us via Tijuana, where it was born a food truck to Guillermo Campos Moreno, a chef who’d done time in various fine-dining restaurants around the world. Moreno’s seafood-focused approach to tacos so impressed Chicagoan Gerardo Santiago that the two partnered up and he brought Moreno north to open a brick-and-mortar expression.
Like so many fine-dining chefs who are downscaling, Moreno can’t resist the urge to pile all manner of garnishes and salsas on his house-made tortillas. Some of them tower like Aztec ziggurats on masa platforms that can’t always support the heavy payloads—all but three tacos on the menu contain anywhere from four to eight different ingredients. I’m still picking traces of grilled rib eye, chimichurri, refried beans, guacamole, cactus leaf, salsa verde, Monterey jack, and avocado out of my hair after a particularly violent encounter with a steak taco.
There are 13 on the menu currently, after a recent change that 86’d a couple of smoked rainbow trout tacos in favor of an option with pan-roasted fish with pickled vegetables, spinach, and chipotle-rosemary mayo, and another with tamarind-glazed pork. Each is given a name not necessarily related to its contents—there’s the Funky, the Chicano, the Gringo en Vacaciones, for example. If you’re not feeling well enough protected by the thin tortillas served singly, some of the fillings can be applied to other delivery vehicles: tortas, tostadas, quesadillas, sopes.
Some of these tacos aren’t too bad, their flavors distinct and bright. It should be no surprise that the best tacos on the menu are the ones that are the least complicated, like the Rasta, featuring snappy chimichurri-marinated shrimp with pickled onions, bell pepper tapenade, and a nutty pumpkin-seed salsa. But in most cases it seems like a fourth element is one too many. The La Chota has tamarind-glazed pork, sweet-and-spicy coleslaw, and pickled vegetables—why does it need bacon too?
Several more of the tacos are messy jumbles of muddled flavors and textures. I believe the restaurant could pull off a fine fried-fish taco if it didn’t bury the crispy chunks of tilapia in two kinds of salsa, chipotle coleslaw, and citrus cream. Same goes for the jicama-shrimp taco: fried crustaceans and batons of jicama lost among tomatillo and pineapple salsas, grilled pineapple, and queso fresco. But sometimes even the simplest seem ill conceived. On two occasions I tried the signature Kraken, octopus marinated in “Mexican pesto” with pickled onion and Castigo Azteca, a salsa with peanuts and chile de arbol. Each time the cephalopod tasted scorched and bitter. And for as busy as most of these are, they could all use more of one thing: acidity. A little bowl of quartered limes at the table would do the trick.
Where the tacos are problematic, the half-dozen varieties of house-made salsa are largely terrific, particularly the aforementioned Castigo Azteca, an inky black paste that tastes like chile-powered peanut butter (kind of like salsa macha). The Robo de Dante, with roasted pumpkin seeds, is thick, vibrantly colored, and deeply nutty tasting, while the Lagrimas de Lucifer looks fairly harmless—tinted pink with beets, it could be mistaken for Pepto—but the roasted habaneros hidden within could fuel a boiler.
A selection of these and perhaps one of the three guacamoles—one of which is smashed with pork rinds, habaneros, and pineapple—would make a nice munch session. Kokopelli also does well with its three ceviches, particularly a number with bright, tart, minty shrimp, vegetables, and passion-fruit juice, which tastes like Thai papaya salad. The oddly named Black Harder is another good bet: a Stygian-colored bowl of whitefish in squid ink with both the pineapple and peanut salsas, it’s a rare example of a pair working in harmony. The bar has stocked 45-some tequilas and mezcals, and mixes a handful of mostly agave-based cocktails, including the most tooth-crackingly sweet margarita in this dimension.
If the folks behind Kokopelli had a more original strategy and decided to open in a neighborhood devoid of overcomplicated, premium-priced tacos, I’m sure it would make a more memorable mark. But where it stands now, it’s lost in the crowd.