El Bolero’s tacos al pastor.
John Tesar is a no slouch. He is owner and executive chef at Knife. He has a cookbook in the works with Jordan Mackay, co-author with Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto. He is developing an Italian restaurant concept. And he is partner-operator at Apheleia Restaurant Group’s Oak. There he has tweaked and streamlined the kitchen and menu and business is improving. Now comes news that he is doing the same at El Bolero, Apheleia’s upscale Mexican spot, after ownership and El Bolero’s opening executive chef parted ways last month.
My only dining experience at El Bolero was the restaurant’s first night of service, when the menu was limited and the service extremely attentive. I had ample time to speak with co-owner John Paul Valverde (whose Coeval Studio also designed the gorgeous space) that night. We talked about the need for a variety of salsa options. I lobbied for a plethora of choices like those available in Mexico City: whole beans, French fries, salsas of every color and Scoville heat unit. I spoke with a manager about agave spirits, and he customized a mezcal flight for me. All of this from the best seat in the house—at the bar in front of the trompo, where I got to watch the taquero work his knife against the spinning top of marinated pork. The tacos al pastor on fresh corn tortillas were good but the execution needed flare. Part of eating these Mexico City favorites is the show taqueros put on for customers, flicking knives this way and that, attempting to catch pineapple slices behind their backs.
I don’t know if the spectacle has been upped since El Bolero opened, but I do know that the trompo isn’t going anywhere. As Valverde told me via Facebook, “[The] trompo is always going to be there.” While that is a relief, like many with deep love and respect for tacos and Mexican regional cuisines, I was leery of how an Anglo chef—no matter how talented and respectful—would treat the food. Anglo-driven “Modern Mexican” has show more disregard than understanding when it comes to the tradition and history of Mexican food.
During a phone conversation, Tesar went a long way to assure me of his seriousness.
A bowl of tejate.
Tejate, a traditional Oaxacan drink made from maize, cacao, mamey seeds, and other ingredients—all handmade—is a labor-intensive preparation. And that’s an understatement. From the hand-shelling of cacao and the grinding of the nixtamal to the serving, takes several hours.
At Mi Lindo Oaxaca in Dallas, Honorio Garcia and family take that time to make tejate from scratch at their restaurant. Here’s a video of the incredible process that shows how the preservation of tradition trumps the creativity of modernity.
Before Dylan Elchami sold his Scotch & Sausage restaurant concept, he converted part of the space housing it into a taqueria specializing in tacos de guisados. For Elchami, it was a dream come true. For me, it was a chance to eat more tacos de guisados, a massive and unwieldy class of taco filled with homey slow-cooked stews and sauced preparations. Chorizo and papas is a guisado. Bistec en salsa de chile pasilla is another. So are chile relleno and picadillo. And this new operation, S&S Tequileria, put picadillo on the menu. Unfortunately, the kitchen’s idea of picadillo was sauceless, dry crumbles of over-salted beef. It was, in a word, terrible. The rest of the tacos ordered that day weren’t as memorable.
Then I noticed something peculiar, the Scotch & Sausage social media channels had almost no taco images. Had they realized how disappointing the tacos were? Not long after that I received a press release for Le Taco Cantina, a new taco concept taking over the space. It described the food as having a “triage of flavors” melding Mexican and Asian cooking techniques and ingredients with a little French flare. While I’m sure who ever wrote that release was trying to make the food come across as compelling as possible, the use of medical disaster terminology probably isn’t the way to achieve that goal. “Sortie” might have been better.
Shortly thereafter, the blogs began to announce the taqueria’s opening. There was a lot of oohing and ahhing because handmade tortillas and moo shu duck confit. Interesting, right? Not really. Handmade tortillas by themselves aren’t that big a deal. They’re difficult to make well consistently, and a smart taquero knows that if he can’t have them produced in-house perfectly it’s better to find a tortilleria that can meet his standards. Continue reading
Gas station tacos, right this way.
Large highway gas stations can offer surprising treats. One of them is tacos. Maybe there is a trompo from which is shaved dark red marinated pork in the Mexico City al pastor style with chiles, achiote and citrus or the Monterrey trompo rendition of sticky smoked paprika. The Fox Gas Station on Marvin D. Love Freeway (Highway 67) in Oak Cliff serves the latter.
My first visit, in early 2014, yielded charred nubs of pork from a tired trompo and soggy tortillas. A return visit a year later, though, had a happier ending. Continue reading
Fuel up after filling up your car’s gas tank.
Tacos can be served from practically anywhere, one of the most popular spaces being the gas station. And why not? Customers can fill up their jalopy’s tank then stuff their own. These taco operations are busy throughout the day, but breakfast often calls for patience. Lines are common. That’s where Habaneros — The Taco Revolution in Arlington, Texas, comes in. I stopped at the gas station taqueria en route to Fort Worth. Just off the Ballpark Way exit on I-30, Habaneros takes up about half of the business with tables and booths and a salsa bar against a counter. Continue reading
Taco Flats’ modern and sleek exterior.
Taco Flats was the taqueria I most anticipated in 2014. Named, with permission, after a legendary Austin bar and rock club, the business from owner Simon Madera, a Rio Grande Valley native and restaurant industry veteran, opened in November. It has become something of a craft beer bar-modern taqueria along a stretch of Burnet Road that is becoming a taco hub. The taqueria is in the same strip center as the brick-and-mortar home of fancy lonchera Peached Tortilla and a short walk from Fork and Taco, which has an Uchi alumnus in its kitchen. Fork and Taco is an admirable restaurant that understands the importance of the handmade tortilla, but this is a review of Taco Flats, not Fork and Taco. That post is forthcoming.
As I mentioned, the wait for Taco Flats’ opening was worth it. From the moment you open the door, you know you’re in for something different. Continue reading
A trio of fused tacos.
John Tesar is a damn great chef. He is also as adept at navigating social media as he is the nuances of aging meat and fine seafood. His knack for promotion via Twitter and Facebook has, in the eyes of others in the restaurant industry, given them permission to flex their muscles. Where Tesar has succeeded, most others have bombed.
Fusion Taco in Houston, a food truck that went brick-and-mortar in 2013, is one such case. Co-owner Julia Sharaby, reportedly having taken issue with a perceived dis from Alison Cook and being left off the Houston Chronicle restaurant critic’s Top 100 Restaurants list, let loose her fury. It was noted by a couple of food blogs, but that was it. Flash and fizzle. The food at Fusion Taco is much the same. Continue reading
Just in case you didn’t know what this truck sold.
Fort Worth has a wealth of loncheras. They’re stationed at the far end of grocery store parking lots, they’re parked alongside convenience stores—wherever they call roll up and set a table with a few chairs. That’s where I found Taqueria Eva’s, a taco truck on the city’s Northside.
An older gentleman sat reading a newspaper in the truck’s cab as a friend and I walked up to the lonchera. As we stepped up to the ordering window, a boy young enough to be the man’s son it open, took our order and immediately set to making our tacos, working the flattop and heating the tortillas like he—a kid—was a seasoned taquero. Continue reading
Morales Restaurant specializes in Huastecan food.
Increasingly I see all antojitos and vitamin T comidas (tacos, tamales, tortas, huaraches, etc.) as being in this website’s wheelhouse. This is especially true when a restaurant makes something from scratch. Perhaps a taco spot serves mass-produced tortillas for its tacos but reserves handmade masa for tlayduas. The tacos could be outstanding while the tlayudas send one reeling into another dimension. Tacos are on the menus of most Mexican eating establishments but when it comes to a particular restaurant, perhaps they do something killer or so regionally specific an order of that signature item along with tacos, in my case, is the appropriate order. It should be the order.
Morales Restaurant in Oak Cliff’s Dells District is such a place. The rare spot in the Dallas area specializing in the food of La Huasteca, a region of Mexico encompassing parts of San Luis Potosi, Veracruz, Hildago, among other Mexican states and named for the indigenous group the Huastec, Morales came recommended by Obed Manuel, occasional contributor to the Taco Trail. His father hails from La Huasteca and swears by Morales Restaurant. The small eatery, about six tables in a sparse, narrow front dining room with two more rooms in the rear, is in the same commercial strip as Hardeman’s BBQ and my barber shop. It also shares a wall with another Mexican joint, Fito’s #3, an outpost of the local chain specializing in the food of Monterrey, Mexico (far from La Huasteca).
Morales’ specialty is zacahuil, a banana leaf-wrapped tamal prepared for celebrations—weddings, baptisms, quinceñeras—because they feed large parties. How is a tamal supposed to serve 10, 20, 50 people? When the tamal in question is a behemoth that can reach up to 15 feet or longer. It’s a gold mine of a food. The serving I enjoyed was spooned from the larger tamal and came packed with shredded pork cooked in a stew of chile colorado chunky with pearls of fragrant masa. The aroma of banana leaf lingered warmly, as did the spice, which was constant but not crippling. For this alone Morales is remarkable.
But it’s more than a bastion for such a regional dish and kin like bocoles and migadas. Continue reading
The restaurant and tortilleria share real estate.
La Mexicana Tortilla Factory supplies taquerias and Mexican restaurants across North Texas, including El Come Taco. And for large-scale production, the tortillas the Duncanville, Texas, operation has been selling for nearly 20 years are dependable and respectable Rarely has the use of La Mexicana tortillas resulted in a poor taco for me. Occasionally, even though the tortillas aren’t fresh-off-the-press job, their application can push a mediocre taco into the realm of admirable nosh.
Unfortunately that wasn’t the case when I lunched at the seven-year-old restaurant attached to the tortilleria, Sabor a la Mexicana. The kitsch factor was turned up to 11, though. In the desolate Sunday afternoon parking lot, rusted sculptures of banditos and musicians adorned in spark plugs welcomed us.
While we ordered, the server told my wife that the restaurant is known for its enchiladas. That’s all she needed to hear to request the spinach enchilada platter: fresh spinach (Sabor’s website makes it clear it doesn’t use frozen or reheated ingredients) cozy in corn tortillas topped with silky sour cream sauce, not the magic shell stuff. They were excellent examples of a Tex-Mex specialty. My wife went so far as to call them the best spinach enchiladas she’s ever had. Continue reading