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PICTURE YOURSELF ON A Mexican-tiled patio as sunlight filters through a rustic roof made of slender wooden latillas. A margarita stands at the ready, droplets of moisture condensing enticingly on the chilled glass. Within arm’s reach on your left is a cast-iron dish piled with chunky guacamole. On your right are tacos de carnitas, made with braised Berkshire pork jowl and topped with charred-tomatillo salsa. I ask you: Have you heard a more compelling description of happy-hour heaven?
This place has caught on like wildfire—no surprise there, since Dallas entrepreneur Tristan Simon knows a thing or two about packing a restaurant (his Consilient group also owns Fireside Pies, the Porch, and Hibiscus, on the same hot Henderson strip). But you needn’t look further than executive chef Michael Brown to know that the place is also serious about its food. Before he was lured to Dallas, Brown headed the kitchen at Red O, the Los Angeles restaurant whose menu was designed by Mexican-food guru Rick Bayless.
But because this is Texas, Brown has wisely put a good number of crowd-pleasers on the menu. Nevertheless, even queso fundido gets an innovative spin with a splash of tequila, a whiff of Mexican oregano, and nibbles of house-made chorizo. Other dishes go farther afield, like the ceviche de hongos, which translates into marinated wild mushrooms bolstered by beets and jícama. Sounding a tropical note are pan-fried plantains in a tart sauce of sour cream covered in a blizzard of queso fresco.
One of the more pleasant surprises is the lineup of salads, not always a strong point in Mexican restaurants. A delicate ensalada del chef was crisp with Boston lettuce and jícama, which contrasted with tiny spheres of avocado. But to my mind, the best dishes are the meatiest. Besides those fantastic carnitas, the cochinita pibil is worth pointing out: pork shank marinated with achiote and sour orange and braised to perfection. Ditto the Colorado lamb sirloin, its pasilla-chile rub melding beautifully with a light char from the grill. After such superlative meat cookery, the arrival of an underdone spit-roasted chicken in a lackluster Oaxacan-style mole was disappointing (and hopefully a one-night flub).
As for desserts, they sound great, but not all live up to their description. The Oaxacan-â€¨chocolate bread pudding had a clunky texture, and the accompanying sweet-â€¨potato ice cream was a bit gritty. Far better was the goat cheese cheesecake, airy and brightened by a fantastic hoja santa sauce (think mint crossed with fennel).
Even though it’s only three months old, Alma is already raising the bar for Mexican restaurants in Dallas. It’s a tribute to Simon and Brown that their plans go beyond happy-hour basics, because it would have been so easy to just open another pricey cocktail destination and watch the money roll in. Obviously they hope people will come for the drinks, but they also intend for them to stay for the food. Bar. 2822 N. Henderson Ave (214-827-2820). Dinner Sun–Wed 5–10, Thur 5–11, Fri & Sat 5–midnight. $$–$$$ +