Red Lulu, Salem’s upscale Mexican eatery, leaves no sense untouched. By Anna and David Kasabian
Spread out in a dimly lit room that seats 125 guests at tables, booths, high-tops, and stools at its substantial riveted stainless steel bar, Red Lulu arrests your attention with vivid red flocked wallpaper and shimmering red glass chandeliers.
Behind the bar and in a massive restored glass breakfront rescued from a landfill, more than 180 Mexican tequilas beckon you in hues of crystal and amber that glisten in the sparse light. This cabinet is but one formerly orphaned item reclaimed and repurposed by Red Lulu. Brawny old cast-iron pedestals support tabletops hewn from once-forgotten lumber. Shabby-chic doors and elaborate wrought iron panels divide spaces, while antique picture frames surround quirky art, including shadow boxes with multicolored luche masks, the kind worn by Mexican wrestlers.
Make no mistake—these adornments are not there to distract from ho-hum food. Instead, they symbolize the originality, authenticity, and attention to detail infused into every dish that passes muster in the chef’s fussy kitchen and arrives at your table.
In case you’re not already happy by the time you’re seated, you’re treated to a basketful of impossibly thin and crispy tortilla chips with three fresh dipping sauces. We followed this with the Sticky Spare Ribs, slow roasted for six hours and swathed in a snappy chipotle sauce flavored with tomato hearts, onion, garlic, and chilies. Next, the excellent Mahi Mahi Flautas of steamed fish with cilantro and tomatillo “guacamolio” and drizzled with annatto seed oil.
Carne Asada, a Mexican restaurant staple, is made extra special by the high-quality skirt steak and freshness of the tortillas, guacamole, salsa roja, red onion, and jalapeños. Not so standard, in fact a Red Lulu original, is the ¡Lobster from Hell!, comprising split, seared, and roasted native lobster with a sparky shallot chutney, chorizo corn, corn tamale, and lobster sauce to finish.
On the side, the Papa Dulces—in this case, fried mashed potato pillows topped with bacon and corn sauce, avocado puree, and sliced scallions. Also, the dense and seductive Iron Pan Corn Bread smothered in garlic cream sauce.
For dessert, we recommend the Bananarama, which consists of tortilla-wrapped banana cheesecake with butterscotch sauce, pecan brittle, and chocolate ice cream, and the intoxicating coffee and chocolate bread pudding with coffee ice cream and caramel and chocolate sauces.
For all this, we have executive chef Brian Roche to thank. Roche also presides at Boston hotspot Lolita and, as expected, adheres to a local, sustainable, made-from-scratch philosophy. But he backs this up with an extraordinary pedigree, having worked alongside a pantheon of Boston’s most accomplished chefs, among them Jackie Robert, Michael Schlow, Ken Oringer, and Todd English.
And just in case you’re not already giddy by the end of your meal, the check arrives next to a bar glass topped with a tower of cotton candy. That ought to make you smile.