IN TEXAS THE WORDS “MEXICAN FOOD” raise certain expectations: There will be chips and salsa. There will be cumin-spiked enchiladas covered in molten yellow cheese. The waiter will say “hot plate, hot plate” when he delivers your order. And yet, as anybody who has been to Mexico knows, many of the best-loved dishes of the Tex-Mex idiom do not exist in that country, or if they do, they exist in a very different form. Likewise, when native-born Mexicans first eat in a “Mexican” restaurant here, they are astonished. They put their forks down and say, “This is not Mexican food.”
Seeing a void crying out to be filled, two groups of entrepreneurs—one in Houston, one in Dallas—have opened two serious and authentic interior-style Mexican restaurants in the past six months. Dallas’ entry is big, splashy La Valentina, an offshoot of cutting-edge restaurants in Mexico City and Ixtapa. Houston’s offering is La Valerosa, an adventurous spin-off by the Mexico-born owners of Las Alamedas, a Houston restaurant that foreshadowed the present movement some sixteen years ago. And while these two are the most visible elements of what might tentatively be called a trendlet, they are not the only ones.
Among the new big-city restaurants is—don’t laugh—Chihuahua Charlie’s in Dallas, part of a Mexico-based chain that actually has a creditable pan-regional menu. There is also activity among the old guard, the handful of Mexico-style restaurants that appeared on the Texas scene a decade or more ago. Javier’s, also in Dallas, is still going strong after almost twenty years—serving the likes of moist little quail in ancho sauce to appreciative crowds. In Houston, Ninfa’s is planning to launch a more diverse and authentic menu, on the theory that its recent die-hard Tex-Mex philosophy might have partially contributed to its embarrassing declaration of Chapter 11 bankruptcy last October. And Austin’s pioneering Fonda San Miguel is in the process of importing a hot young chef from Mexico City to revitalize its kitchen.
What does it mean that two restaurants with menus as sophisticated as you would find in Mexico’s capital have opened within a month of each other in Texas? For one thing, it demonstrates that the gap between our Mexican food and their Mexican food is narrowing. The typical Tex-Mex bill of fare of ten to fifteen years ago never varied; a symphony in brown, it consisted of enchiladas, tacos, tamales, beans, rice, chile con queso, and guacamole, with a praline or pineapple sherbet for dessert. But gradually Texans have cozied up to a cluster of Mexican dishes that were unheard of here before: caldo tlalpeño brimming with avocado and chicken; cheesy quesadillas; fat, savory corn-masa gorditas; and chicken in chocolaty mole poblano, to mention only four. More than a score of restaurants—including La Calesa, El Mirador, La Fogata, and the late Mario’s in San Antonio; Las Manitas, Guëro’s, and Manuel’s in Austin; Pico’s and Cafe Noche in Houston; and La Calle Doce in Dallas—have broadened our culinary horizons. And then there are the exponents of Southwestern cuisine, which have schooled us in the cross-cultural ways of cilantro pesto and pineapple-chile salsa. Thanks to all of the above, real, pure Mexican food is now downright approachable.
LA VALENTINA (14866 MONTFORT, 972-726-0202), the troop leader of the present trend, is a convincing clone of a Mexican hacienda, even if it is in booming far north Dallas. Most recently the space housed the Roaring Fork restaurant, but no traces of it remain. “We took everything out,” says Natalia Malpica, gesturing around the dining rooms. “We stripped the place. One day it was full of furniture; the next day it was naked.” Gregarious and intense, with masses of wavy brown hair, the fortyish Malpica is one of five owners of the restaurant, which opened November 15. She and co-owner Americo Circuit, 28, who is as tall and slender as Malpica is petite, have met me here on a weekday afternoon to show off their creation: a beguiling little piece of Mexico. Or, perhaps more correct, a substantial, 7,500-square-foot piece of Mexico. As they lead the tour of the million-dollar redo, passing the fountain and the tall pink-stone columns, we seem to be wandering through a scene from the movie Like Water for Chocolate. “For me,” says Circuit, “La Valentina is to show the best of Mexico to everyone who comes here. We want the world to know about our art, architecture, music, and our cuisine.” Echoes Malpica: “We want to show that Mexico is beautiful. It is not only problems and confusion.”
Underscoring this mission is a multiregional menu, some of the dishes classics, others created for the restaurant by famous Mexican chefs and cookbook authors. A few more are delicious specialties of humble eateries around the country that the owners learned of through word of mouth. Under the direction of 29-year-old chef Eduardo Carrasco, who has moved to Dallas after five years with La Valentina in Mexico City, the menu runs the gamut from the familiar (homemade blue-corn tortillas oozing melted white Oaxaca cheese) to the exotic (chicken breast in a lubricious sweet-sour tamarind-and-chile mole).
In fact, if you want a forecast of dishes and combinations that Texans will probably see more of in the next few years, all you have to do is read the menus of La Valentina and its cohorts in the pure Mexican movement. The first thing you will notice is that a number of dishes come sauced in wine and cream, a reminder of Mexico’s Spanish and French heritage. But beyond that, you will be struck by the more indigenous ingredients and preparations: curious and wonderful chiles such as the mulato, guajillo, and morita; nopales (cactus pads) cooked with fish and beef, not just in salads and scrambled eggs; distinctive moles, such as pumpkin seed; chiles rellenos that are baked, not batter-fried; less cumin in the seasonings and more achiote, a savory powdered red seed that flavors fish beautifully; tropical fruits like the guava, tamarind, and plantain; fragile yellow squash blossoms,