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, stuffed or used in soups; and above all, cuitlacoche.
Indeed, if any one ingredient epitomizes the new, true Mexican food, it would be cuitlacoche—also spelled huitlacoche—the delectable black fungus that envelops ears of corn when the weather is damp. It is widely used in Mexico in soups and as a stuffing for the classic cuitlacoche crêpes, and it seems to be catching on here big time. “We are bringing in from Mexico two hundred cans a month,” says Malpica. Think of it. Two years ago most Dallasites had never even heard of cuitlacoche. Now they can’t get enough.
A classy treat in Mexico, a bit like truffles, cuitlacoche appears at La Valentina in an inky-black but tasty chicken-broth-based soup and as the main ingredient in the sauce accompanying filete meztli veteado, an excellent herbed tenderloin. In this dish, the cuitlacoche imparts an elusive flavor that hints of smoke and earth but is otherwise impossible to describe.
But as good as this entrée is, and as good as were the half a dozen or so others I sampled over several visits, I think La Valentina’s forte is appetizers. Panuchos yucatecos, for instance, are small puffed masa shells topped with moist shredded chicken, black beans, crisp cabbage, chiles, and marinated onion. Piping hot, they are little morsels of heaven. The same goes for the tacos de Don Elias, also bite-size homemade tortillas, topped this time with achiote-marinated fish and sparked with cilantro and pineapple. Soups and salads are wonderful too. The sopa de clavitos is a fragrant, clear broth aswim with skinny wild mushrooms and octopuslike open squash blossoms. The ensalada de tacos al revés deconstructs the usual taco shell and greens, presenting the diner with a nineties-style salad topped with shredded carrots, pomegranate seeds, chiles, and a “hay” of tortilla strips in a gingery peanut-touched dressing.
Even though the entrées aren’t, in my opinion, as exciting as the starters, they are more authentic overall. Perhaps my favorite was the chicken Don Librix in tamarind mole, a rather thick, rolled chicken breast in a sienna-colored sauce that had a sweet, almost evanescent fruitiness. But the most Mexican and unusual entrée was the mestizo, a variation on a traditional dish called sábana, or “bedsheet.” Created for La Valentina by Mexico City—based culinary expert Lula Bertrán, it consists of a platter-size grilled tenderloin that has been pounded out thinner than a cube steak, folded over a filling of crunchy fried pork skins, and covered with two sauces: tomatillo and black bean. To be honest, my first reaction was “waste of a perfectly good steak.” The sauces and pork skins masked the taste of the meat. But I enjoy all the elements separately, and who’s to say that, after another time or two, this particular combination won’t be as appealing to me as it obviously is to La Valentina’s Mexican patrons?
WHEN IT OPENED ON OCTOBER 28, HOUSTON’S La Valerosa (1800 Post Oak Boulevard, 713-965-9600) was named La Valentina—for about twenty minutes, hyperbolically speaking. The restaurant’s owners, Jorge Sneider and his son, Alex, knew that the name was in use in Mexico, but they liked the way the words “La Valentina” rolled off the tongue. They registered the name with the Secretary of State’s office and sent out invitations to their opening. Then the owners of La Valentina—whose new restaurant in Dallas was all but finished—heard about the duplication, and as Henry James might have said, a certain difficulty ensued. Lawyers were retained, records were scrutinized, and the Dallas contingent was found to have prior rights. Within days, “La Valerosa” of Houston arose from the ashes of its previous incarnation, a bit chagrined perhaps but otherwise little affected.
Located in the upscale environs of the Pavilion on Post Oak, La Valerosa is smaller and more modest than La Valentina, its decor suggesting rather than recreating Mexico. But it is attractive and comfortable, occasionally enlivened by entertainment from blessedly restrained strolling guitarists. Two tiers of tables and cane-backed chairs spread out over burnished Saltillo tile floors. Sandy-colored brick walls are punctuated by graceful arches, and a stone-and-tile fountain gurgles away in the center of the room. Customers tend to be adventurous eaters rather than the preen-and-be-seen set, although socialite Carolyn Farb comes in regularly with her pals for the snapper in tamarind sauce.
Both here and at La Valentina, the geographical range of the menu is far more extensive than you would find anywhere in Mexico except the melting pot of the capital city. And it is apparent from reading the bill of fare that the Sneiders and their chef, Eduardo Padilla, have taken pains to both reassure and challenge their customers. To this end, homey, humble black bean soup shares the menu with exotic cuitlacoche-filled quesadillas and aromatic chicken with cactus in a cascabel-chile-and-tequila sauce. Jorge Sneider, a tall man in his late fifties with a full head of wavy gray hair, is a veteran of the effort to bring Mexican cuisine to America, and he knows what he is up against.
“It was so hard back then,” he says, referring to the early days at the first restaurant he owned in Houston, Las Alamedas, a pretty, hacienda-style place located incongruously on the Katy Freeway. “At first we were determined to be pure. In Mexico, for example, restaurants don’t serve nachos as a sort of all-purpose appetizer, and we didn’t put them on the menu. But here, people want nachos.” After resisting the supplications and demands as long as he could, Sneider finally relented. At La Valerosa he never considered omitting nachos, but he has made them distinctive with refried black beans; homemade chorizo; mild, creamy Chihuahua cheese; and fresh, not canned, jalapeños.
Little by little, Sneider and Padilla are tinkering with the menu, refining dishes that work and tossing out those that don’t. Sneider has been a cook himself, and Padilla, 40, has cooked at several large hotels in Mexico and was the personal chef of the governor of Puebla. Overall, their concepts are consistently appealing (although the flat descriptions on the menu hardly do them justice). If there is a problem, it is that the execution can be inconsistent, although even problematic dishes have redeeming features.
The quail empanada appetizer, for instance, suffered from an awkwardly thick crust, but the filling of marinated bird and mushrooms was luscious and the accompanying chipotle sauce was a smoky sensation. The chicken Acapulco, little disks of chicken rolled around a filling of shrimp, fish, and poblanos, was nice enough, but on one visit the chicken was dry and its creamy lobster sauce as bland as the sauce on chicken à la king. And cerdo a la ciruela, pork medallions in a red wine—plum sauce, needed a dash of vinegar or lemon juice to cut its monochromatic sweetness.
But even as the kitchen continues to experiment, most dishes come off well. Snapper azteca presents the meaty fish in a silky green mole infused with the vegetable flavor of poblano chiles. The sauce is rendered agreeably tart with a little tomatillo, then smoothed and soothed with the addition of sour cream. Tucked inside the fish filet, morsels of cuitlacoche lend their own mysterious flavor. Another success is cochinita pibil, shredded pork seasoned with achiote. Although it isn’t cooked in a banana leaf in the rustic stone-lined pit, or pib, of the Yucatán, the succulent results are just as tasty. Best, it comes with irresistible sweet-hot marinated red onions.
The pounded-thin grilled beef tenderloin is a dish that both La Valentina and La Valerosa seem intent on introducing to Texas, although Sneider has renamed it “sarape,” or “shawl,” instead of the usual sábana, or “sheet.” “Frankly, I was a little afraid of people making jokes,” he says, with what seems an excess of caution. Here the meat comes in a tempting presentation, piled high with grilled poblanos, red bell peppers, and onions. It is accompanied by a smooth green mole that combines the tartness of tomatillos and the nutty, meaty flavor of pumpkin seeds. Like La Valentina’s version, it seemed more interesting than appealing, though not without promise.
In a way, it is strange that sophisticated, interior-style Mexican restaurants should be so late in immigrating to Texas. You’d think Tex-Mex would have been a natural bridge to the native cuisine, but the opposite is true. Tex-Mex has been so dominant and so cheap that it squelched the competition. On top of that, Texans until recently have been stubbornly chauvinistic about their yellow-cheese enchiladas. But the Lone Star State is a different place these days. The economy is up, investors are smiling, and diners are seized with a spirit of adventure. And as travelers to Mexico know, we’ve barely scratched the surface of that country’s multilayered cuisine. If corn fungus is on Texas menus now, can stewed iguana and fried grasshoppers be far behind?