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The freestanding building of white and rough-hewn brown brick looks equally at home along Dallas’s Lovers Lane, on the edge of the wealthy enclave of Bluffview, as it would in a Mexican city’s tony neighborhood. The restaurant, José, a modern Mexican eatery referred to locally as José on Lovers, is rustic but chic. The interior is stylishly appointed with leather seating, semicircular yellow booths, dark wood, and ceramic tile walls. They are painted in quick, rough lines with street and dining scenes representative of Mexico. The mural extends to the outdoor seating area in the front of the restaurant. At the center of that patio stands an agave-heart fountain. Much of the decor comes from the Guadalajara studio of master ceramist José Noé Suro. (The restaurant’s name honors the artist.) It’s a peaceful space with an extraordinary agave spirits list and a staff that has a penchant for anticipating diners’ needs. Leading the kitchen is executive chef Anastacia Quiñones-Pittman (known as AQ), a Texas native and leading figure in contemporary Mexican cuisine in the state.
It’s a position she’s fought to earn over her career of professional cooking. Ten years ago, she was one of the first higher-end Dallas chefs to nixtamalize corn in-house, at the short-lived Alma restaurant on Henderson Avenue. Area diners weren’t ready, and the restaurant closed after eight months. More recently, when she helped open the Cedars Social as executive chef, diners seemed primed for modern Mexican. But Quiñones-Pittman left that restaurant after a disagreement with her partners about the direction of the menu. At José, she’s found a welcoming space where her talent and vision is fully realized.
Quiñones-Pittman claims her seat at the top thanks in part to her chef’s special, Tacos de Tacha. (Tacha is her childhood nickname.) The dish changes every several days and is often inspired by ingredients on hand or by the chef’s introspection. Thoughtfulness led to the creation of a recent Taco de Tacha, a slice of sweet lobster tail draped with aromatic and herbaceous mole verde. The thick mole, aged for nearly one thousand days, with a surprising but not unwelcome spike of spice, is speckled with pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and sesame seeds. The taco is presented on a tortilla made from pink bolita belatove heirloom corn. Its coarse texture and its color, which transitions from splotchy pink to an even brown, evoke a damp-sand beach. But it’s more than a beachy dream on a plate.
The chef tells me the taco came together while she was thinking of how mole continues to be confined to family recipes and inherited history. “It’s always about your grandmother’s mole or your mother’s mole. It doesn’t have to be,” she says. Chicken smothered in chocolate-brown mole poblano doesn’t need to be the default. The lobster taco is a repudiation of that in honor of her daughter. “A lot of my cooking is about showing that it’s absolutely okay to honor your mom while showing your daughters it’s okay to be different.” Tradition can be bent without being broken and swept aside.
Examples of the refreshing versatility in Quiñones-Pittman’s food are seen in other Tacos de Tacha, among them the tempura-fried maitake mushrooms topped with burrata and pickled peppers on a red bell tortilla; seared pork belly with blackberry mole and peaches on a blue corn tortilla; and quesillo-stuffed fried squash blossoms with arugula on a chile de árbol tortilla. Two of my favorite early Tacos de Tacha are the taco de flautitas, chopped fried flautas nestled in a blue corn tortilla, and the s’mores taco. The latter starts with an Abuelita-brand chocolate-infused corn tortilla topped with a caramelized house-made Mexican vanilla marshmallow. Most of the corn tortillas are infused with other elements, such as bell pepper, chocolate, or chiles with a spicy tingle.
Tacos aren’t the only dishes in Quiñones-Pittman’s culinary arsenal. Aguachiles are another of her specialties. The dish of seafood in a chile-infused liquid is essentially a citrusy, fruit-forward raw seafood playground. The aguachiles rotate at the chef’s whim, as do ceviches. Recently, though, the offering was coconut ceviche, a Texas redfish, cubed avocado, and mango mixed with pepitas, bantam discs of serrano chiles, cilantro, and lime juice served in an open-topped coconut surrounded by tostadas.
Carnitas de olla, a delicate and sweet pork preparation immersed in a tomatillo salsa, is also popular. Then there are the tetelas, thick triangularly folded masa stuffed with a net of quesillo and mushroom. The dish is a celebration of the rainy season, when Mexico’s bounty of mushrooms is used in myriad preparations, including the beautiful tetelas at José. They’re plated next to a pool of aged mole with an islet of crema at the center. When combined, it means bites of chewy masa; salty, milky cheese; forest-evoking mushrooms; and alternating sweet, spicy, and tangy flavors from the blended sauces.
In a way, Quiñones-Pittman was meant to find a home at José, a home that would give her free rein to share her vision of Mexican food. Owner Brady Wood offered her the job ahead of the restaurant’s opening on Cinco de Mayo in 2017. She immediately declined the offer because she didn’t believe she was the right person for the job. Wood continued to approach her to join the team, even if it were in a consulting capacity. Quiñones-Pittman repeatedly declined, until her departure played out dramatically at the Cedars Social. She decided to take a break from professional kitchens to focus on taco pop-ups. When Wood approached her again in late 2018, Quiñones-Pittman agreed, as long as she would have free rein. “It turned out to be magical,” Wood says. “She is one of the most special people I’ve ever met.”
The result is magical, but the start was rough. One day, after Quiñones-Pittman had been on the job for less than two weeks, most of the kitchen staff walked out in protest. “They didn’t like taking rules from a woman,” she says. Her husband, chef Daniel Pittman, left his busy restaurant to wash dishes at José. That disastrous service, after which Quiñones-Pittman had to hire a slate of new kitchen employees, has led to a community-invested staff at all levels. The tortillera declares she’s happy because she loves what she’s doing. Quiñones-Pittman encourages her cooks and chefs to experiment in the kitchen, learn new skills, and work at different kitchen stations. They might even get the opportunity to create a Taco de Tacha using the in-house nixtamalized heirloom corn masa from Masienda.
Quiñones-Pittman, general manager Victor Enrique Rojas, and beverage director Carlos Marquez make most restaurant decisions as a trio. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, they served hot meals to frontline medical workers, set up curbside operations, and adapted together to newfound variables. The pandemic also gave the team a chance to streamline operations, customer experience, and staffing. Since March 2020, the trio have created a team bond by handpicking staff they believed had the same approach to hospitality and Mexican cuisine. That staff is what Rojas calls “a superior group to work with every single day.” I see the high standards every time I dine at José. The bar or the patio are the best spots to experience the excellence of the restaurant. Every server is ready to help, the bartenders are as knowledgeable as the servers and the kitchen staff, the agave-heart fountain is soothing, and the tacos are always a happy surprise.
4931 W. Lovers Lane, Dallas
Hours: Sunday 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Tuesday 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.–11 p.m.