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.