IT HIT ME THE MINUTE I looked at the press release for Trece, Dallas’s newest Mexican restaurant. There, emblazoned across the first page, were the words “Trece brings ‘Alta Cocina Mexicana’ to Dallas.” Ha, I thought. “Alta cocina mexicana” indeed. No one would ever put the phrase “French haute cuisine” in quotes, like some esoteric concept that had to be translated for the masses. The words “France” and “elevated cooking” go together like foie gras and Sauternes. But “Mexican elevated cooking,” well, that’s a different story, or it is in Texas, where Mexican food is generally equated with cheap, simple, comforting dishes that you can wolf down without changing out of your jeans and T-shirt.
At Trece, however, the tables have been turned. Here executive chef Amador Mora is attempting what only a handful of Texas restaurants—Fonda San Miguel in Austin, Hugo’s in Houston, Lanny’s in Fort Worth, and Ciudad in Dallas, which is no doubt watching Trece like a hawk—are currently pulling off: sophisticated Mexican cooking. Will he succeed or will the Tex-Mex juggernaut run him down? Given that the man has 23 years of experience at the august Mansion on Turtle Creek (where he rose to the position of chef de cuisine), I’d say he has an excellent chance.
The first thing you notice when you stroll into Trece is what’s not there: no gaudy fiesta colors, no waiters in guayabera shirts, no suffocating smoke from sizzling fajita platters. Instead, the high-ceilinged room is smartly done in ebony and cream, servers wear custom-made shirts, and a phalanx of rolling carts stands at the ready for the preparation of tableside guacamole. In fact, said guacamole is a great place to start, not just because the waiters push it but because it sums up the whole “alta cocina” concept.
Should you spring for an order, you’ll find not mere uncooked tomatoes but “fire roasted” tomatoes; not a dice of cheapo yellow onions but a combination of red onions and toasted garlic; and not packaged green pulp but bowls of big, creamy avocados that are cut open and scooped out before your eyes. The results? It was a fine guacamole, no question, but it was also a mellow—which is to say borderline boring—one. I missed the acidic hit of fresh tomatoes, and I also wanted more lime juice and salt.
But enough with the guacamole. Mora’s upscale approach is also on display in the chiles rellenos (previous page), two roasted poblanos plumply stuffed with spinach, goat cheese, and chopped shrimp. The best part of this dish is the boffo combination of flavors—sprightly yet rich—and the crisp fried cornmeal-and-bread-crumb crust. But not everything on Trece’s menu is ultrafashionable. Mora has deliberately included homey dishes such as budin azteca, a layered tortilla pie of chicken, chorizo, and cheese that bears more than a passing resemblance to King Ranch casserole. I thought it was all right, but honestly, it just had “sop to the hoi polloi” written all over it. (What an insufferable snob I am.)
I’ll be curious to come back in six months and see how Trece’s menu has evolved. Will the hoi polloi gain the upper hand? Or will Mora’s classy concepts, and classy prices, catch on with savvy Dallas diners? Speaking for myself, I’m tickled to see that someone is, so to speak, pushing the enchilada.