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.
Bolero’s incoming chef, Jacob Barrios, has the professional chops and is a native of Puebla, which, like Oaxaca, is considered part of the heart of authentic Mexican cooking. “Jake’s worked with me at Oceana, RM Seafood, both in New York and Las Vegas, and Tesar’s Modern Steak & Seafood. So, Jake is fine-dining trained, but he understands the flavors and tradition and the history of Mexican street food,” Tesar says. The chefs hope to add more ceviches and other antojitos. “You know I love a good taco just as much as anybody else,” Tesar jokes, explaining that before Barrios was brought on board, the chef held a tasting for El Bolero’s ownership. “And they loved it. John Paul especially was in love with the fact that we actually captured the flavors of Mexico.” Tesar doesn’t believe El Bolero will be all sarapes, palomas and rancheras and ay-ay-ay over night. “Jake is going to be my guide through real Mexico. And then the two of us will brainstorm and refine it all but not make it foofy,” he says. “We want people to come in, eat and say, ‘Wow! This is just like Mexico City.’ But it’s going to take some time and some learning. We’re going to have to earn it.”
What has me excited is the possibility of tacos arabes, which originate, like Barrios, in Puebla. The progenitor of tacos al pastor and the trompo taco styles, arabes are served on flour tortilla-like pan arabes. One or two places in DFW claim to offer tacos arabes but none do it from a spit. I’d like to see Tesar and Barrios take the time to serve it, at least as a special. Whether that happens, I’m looking forward to seeing and tasting what’s next at El Bolero.