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.
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Head’s up. It’s taco time.
“One Shot” is an occasional series reviewing non-taquerías’ tacos.
The last time I saw my maternal grandfather, a hulk of a man, I was 5 years old. He had walked through the house carrying a lechon—a spit-roasted whole pork—across his shoulders into the backyard and on to the table where the rest of the food for the family feast was arrayed. He gently set down the pig in the center of the table while I stood at the end barely tall enough to look over the top. And in what seemed a continuous motion from the crispy brown animal to his placing his leathered hands under my arms, lifting me onto the table and sitting me crossed-legged face-to-face with our meal. No sooner had he said, “You’re first, Joseito,” than I had clasped the face of the pig behind the cheeks and yanked the whole thing off. In one piece. It was glorious. I gnawed on the ears and tried to pull the snout, a few singed bristles sprouting from it off the rest of the rough, salty skin. The cloudy white pad of fat on the backside of the face brushed my lips and chin. I loved that day.
When dinner plans were recently thrown for a loop and a friend mentioned the crispy pig’s head at John Tesar’s Knife steakhouse, I relived that day in an instant and said, “Yes.” Continue reading →
Avocado, cream, salsa, dried corn, little bits of breading. These were on my fingers moments after I took a bite of the Ipswich clam taco on special last night at Spoon Bar & Kitchen. And it was pretty delicious. The heat from the jalapeño cream salsa and the pillowy but hefty clams laced the elements of John Tesar’s taco creation nestled in a flour tortilla that seconds earlier been removed from the grill. The result was a warm, papery tortilla. It was only then that I looked at my dining companion and driver for the excursion. He wasn’t nearly as messy but he was as thankful as I was for the opportunity that Tesar and his staff afforded us. I’m excited to try it again when the taco is added to the forthcoming lunch menu, which I was told would be rolled out sometime after Valentine’s Day. Until then, check out some of the photos I took.
Spoon Bar & Kitchen
8220 Westchester Dr.
If you’ve been watching Top Chef Seattle, you know of the three Dallas chefs competing on the reality TV cooking show. Week before last, John Tesar, one of those toques, was voted off the show, but was given a chance at redemption through a text messaging and a social media campaign. The latter counted the number of times the #SaveChefJohn hashtag was mentioned on Twitter versus that of his opponent. During the popularity contest’s run, I tweeted to Tesar that he’d have my #SaveChefJohn vote if he agreed to offer a one-night-only seafood taco special at his Preston Center restaurant, Spoon Bar & Kitchen. He did agree, and will have the taco available tomorrow, Tuesday, Jan. 15.
Before I share the type of taco, I’d like to tell you. Tesar knows his way around a taco. The chef John helped develop the Wild Salsa menu and concept before handing it over to Kelly Hightower. I’m expecting a solid taco born of his familiarity with the food and his expertise with seafood. The man knows his stuff. Continue reading →