The guy sitting next to me at the bar just got stood up, via text. “Aw, come on,” he howls at his phone, over the Vegas rattle of cocktail shakers, the three flat-screen TVs tuned to sports, and the low rumble of chatter inside SoBro’s casual new watering hole, La Mulita. But he gets it. “I mean, it was just an impromptu thing—grabbing some drinks at a bar down the street,” he says, which (minus the part about getting stood up) sounds a lot like how La Mulita’s owners imagined customers dropping in at this hip cantina with funky red barstools and drink specials scrawled on an old framed mirror propped up behind the bar. The spot opened in March, a little more than a year after the debut of its companion restaurant, Delicia. But while the original establishment’s pan-Latin haute cuisine—a menu of dazzlers like barbacoa drizzled with cilantro-lime crema and the Peruvian shredded-chicken dish aji de gallina—has gourmet aspirations and a dining room that looks like a spa in Palm Springs, La Mulita has its own humble vibe.
Most of the fare arrives in little cardboard baskets like you get at the drive-in. Laminated menu cards list options mainly in the salad, taco, and slider food groups. And exotic cocktails like a margarita spiked with orange-blossom water and the Orange-Lime Batida—shaken with Brazilian limeade, the sugar-cane spirit cachaca, and a trace of cream—involve pre-batched mixes (all made from scratch, in-house) for speedy delivery. “We wanted the casual customer that we don’t get at Delicia,” says operating partner Nicole Harlan-Oprisu, who is part of the ownership teams behind several other local hits around town: The Northside Social, Northside Kitchenette, Village Cigar, and Old Pro’s Table. She refers to her La Mulita clientele as the “mow your grass, put on a hat, and grab some beers and tacos” crowd—the kind of pack that appreciates the theatrics of fine food and drink but sometimes just wants to jam a wedge of lime down the neck of a beer. In other words, all of SoBro.
There is nothing delicate or first date–friendly about eating chilaquiles at a bar, but it’s hard to stop shoveling in bites of it.
While chimichurri sliders might play well in this gentrified swath of town that the Indianapolis Judgmental Map defines as “Hippies” (just south of “People Reliving College”), Harlan-Oprisu and her staff had some far-flung inspiration (and a little fun) assembling the menu. Both the bacon-wrapped hotdog piled with pico, guacamole, and caramelized onion and the miniature sesame-seeded cemita buns filled with peppery achiote-roasted pork are the type you might buy from a street vendor in Mexico City, which makes sense: Head chef Ricardo Martinez hails from Mexico. Contributing chef Miguel Cordero is of Dominican descent, adding cred to items like the authentic Caribbean Dog, a beef link covered in the Latin-style spiced slaw curtido and crushed potato chips. There is a kitchen supervisor from Honduras; a line cook from El Salvador; servers from Peru, Brazil, and Mexico. “Every time we add a dish from somebody’s country,” says Harlan-Oprisu, “it gives them a nice sense of cultural pride.”
These dishes don’t have to try too hard to win diners over, either. The fried-fish tacos, two for $10, feature slabs of whitefish tucked inside white-corn tortillas with shredded red cabbage, pickled onions, and some spicy mayo. A more ambitious kitchen might over-garnish, but true fans of the Baja-style fish taco know that a squirt of lime is all this simple workingman’s craving needs. And it takes some cojones to serve good, gloppy chilaquiles like the kind La Mulita sends out, a beautiful mess of torn corn tortillas soaked and softened in salsa verde with globs of queso fresco and squiggles of crema. If you pay the extra $2 to get fried eggs on top, which you should, the oozing yolks drip down through the layers of masa, adding even more density and flavor. There is nothing delicate or first date–friendly about eating chilaquiles at a bar, but it’s hard to stop shoveling in bites of it, especially if you scoop it up between sips of fruity, frothy Piña Rosada—a blanco tequila punch flavored with a heady combination of pineapple, lime, hibiscus, and the sweet black-currant liqueur creme de cassis, which is as inebriating as it is delicious. So hang onto your red bar stool. And who cares if your date stands you up?
5215 N. College Ave., 317-925-0677, lamulitaindy.com
Hours Tues.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–1 a.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the July 2014 issue.