Gingerly I lifted the edge of the soft, thick blue-corn tortilla and peered inside. Tucked within its steamy depths was nothing I’d seen in a Texas taco: three kinds of mushrooms—lion’s mane, chestnut, and oyster—plus toasted pumpkin seeds and a splash of citrusy ponzu. The scent wafting up was earthy and dark. I pulled off a bite of the tortilla. The masa smelled of sunbaked fields. “Do you make your own tortillas here?” I asked the enthusiastic server at Houston’s El Topo. “From scratch,” she said. “We made yours this morning. We even grind the corn.” I looked across the table at one of my two friends, who was devouring a Papa Costra: chunky potatoes folded into a bronzed, scandalously melty wrapper made of griddle-cooked queso blanco. The other was spearing bites of Funky Brussels doused with shoyu, Japan’s nuanced soy sauce. This was no routine Mexican menu.
I was on one of my first trips outside Austin in more than a year, vaccinated and ready to be writing my column again. El Topo was among the places I hoped to visit in Houston, primarily because I was dying to try the Houston Taco, a deservedly famous extravaganza of braised beef cheek anointed with epazote aioli. I had classified the place as a taqueria, but I clearly needed to revise my assessment. Yes, there were tacos galore during the day, but I soon discovered that weekend dinner fare ran to tenderloin, duck, and caviar, not to mention gnocchi and, among the desserts, rhubarb shortcake. This was the Walt Whitman of little neighborhood restaurants—it contained multitudes.
The business started in 2015 as a food truck, the passion of chef-owner and San Antonio native Tony Luhrman. The then-29-year-old had left a career in software and design to do what he loved: cook. From the get-go, his ambitious mobile restaurant attracted attention. Online fans celebrated its house-cured bacon, rejoiced over its homemade prickly pear kombucha, and raved about its flan-a-cotta (a luscious vanilla dessert that crosses flan with panna cotta). At dinner, enthusiasts posted snapshots of the Yucatán chopped salad, its crimson cabbage leaves as vivid as rose petals. And every week, yet another new customer had a laugh at the expense of Big D with the Dallas Quesadilla, a flour tortilla filled with generic white cheese. In late 2019, Luhrman decided he was doing well enough to expand; in January, he moved his operation to a small, white, boxy building in the upscale West University area. Two months later the pandemic shut down the state. The rest of the year was tough, but with a strong lunch business and an increasingly curious dinner crowd (taking advantage of takeout options, the cheerful patio, and the spaced-out dining room), El Topo made it through.
The morning after my first visit, I roused myself before nine to meet yet another sorely missed friend and try the restaurant’s breakfast, starting with a cardamom butter latte, made with coffee from local roaster Little Dreamer. The Gringo breakfast taco was an eggy classic with notably smoky bacon tucked into a gossamer flour tortilla. La Muffina featured similar ingredients sandwiched inside a stellar house-made English muffin.
Beyond its food, the little place charmed us, with its Saltillo tile floor, potted palms and spiky snake plants, and strings of colored lights outside. Arrayed on a table left vacant for social distancing were quirky items like a toy oxcart and a statuette of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A sign above a jar on the counter instructed, “Insert witty tip pun.” Dozens of well-thumbed international cookbooks filled a shelf. During a coffee refill I noticed a quotation on the front wall from Alejandro Jodorowsky, the director of a bizarre 1970 Mexican art film titled—wait for it—El Topo.
The next time I came in, a couple of days later, with yet another group of friends, we got the best seat in the house: the big faux-cowhide booth near a plate-glass window up front. We had all starved ourselves to save room for dinner, so we started with the most indulgent dish on the menu: foie gras. The luxurious goose liver was judiciously browned, its satiny texture set off by dainty toast points and jam made with fresh strawberries picked in Cleveland, just an hour to the north; a sprinkle of marigold petals completed the pretty picture. After so much richness, ceviche seemed like a good idea. The colorful version here—chunks of creamy avocado, red tomato, firm Gulf snapper, and fried pumpkin seeds—came submerged in a feisty three-citrus marinade, a variation on Peru’s leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk. Alongside were darling blue-corn masa puffs.
By this time, we were ready for some serious protein, so I was happy to find tenderloin on the menu. We ordered it medium-rare, but I was mystified by the notation “PB aged.” Could the letters possibly stand for . . . peanut butter? Why, yes, they could. A few years back there was a craze in a small corner of the culinary world for aging cuts of beef in a chilled butter shell. Luhrman had taken the notion not only to heart but to the next level by adding peanut butter to the mix. That may sound odd, but I am here to tell you that our steak was amazing: rosy, beefy slices that didn’t need the accompanying red-eye gravy, a twist on the Southern classic made with black coffee and three meat drippings. (To answer your burning question, no, the steak did not taste like peanut butter, thank God.)
As the evening rolled along, we made room for duck confit, a plump, succulent, copper-toned leg and thigh. Alongside was a butternut puree infused with melted bone marrow. After that, dessert seemed superfluous, but we were lured in by the menu’s three strikingly different choices. The most mainstream was the rhubarb shortcake; the most accomplished was the liquid-silk flan-a-cotta, with the tang of goat’s milk in the accompanying cajeta. But the one that caught my fancy was the pineapple mezcal cheesecake, which was making its menu debut that night. Alas, the texture was a bit too loose, but the fresh, grassy notes of mezcal lent something bright and fun to an often stodgy dessert.
By the time we stepped out of the restaurant into the warm spring night, I had more questions than usual for my post-visit phone call to the chef. Our talk stretched out for a good two hours over two days, into memories of Luhrman’s Mexican great-grandmother, the lessons he learned from Hispanic line cooks in San Antonio, and recipes he pulled from his sauce-stained cookbook collection, which spans genres and styles, from Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts to Tacos: Recipes and Provocations by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman. “Every culture borrows from every other culture,” he said as we wrapped up the conversation, “and there’s some really beautiful life you can breathe into a familiar dish by using a different technique. I love it when you eat something new that’s not quite what you expected but it surprises you in a lovely way.”
Come to think of it, that’s not a bad definition of what I love about visiting new restaurants: being surprised in a lovely way. I certainly was this time.