Larry Delgado never intended to open a Mexican restaurant. “I learned Mexican food in my mother’s kitchen,” says the owner of eight-month-old Salomé on Main, in McAllen. “It was my first love. But what fascinated me were French and Italian techniques, global flavors.” His career followed suit. He left his hometown of Edinburg when he was seventeen and soon landed in Austin, where he eventually became a managing partner at a Carrabba’s Italian Grill; on his own time he taught himself to cook by “picking up every cookbook” he could find.
When he moved back to the Valley more than a decade ago, his first effort was a wine bar, House Wine & Bistro. In 2013, he followed up with the eclectic Salt New American Table. “We wanted to play with flavors from all cultures,” he says. “I felt like I had something to prove.” The restaurants, both in McAllen, became major hits. Then, in 2015, Delgado took a trip south of the border.
In Mexico City, he dined at the groundbreaking restaurant Pujol, world-famous for raising indigenous dishes to fine-dining status. He also enjoyed street food, eating “every insect you could imagine,” and visited the city’s massive markets; he was stunned by the breadth and variety of produce, meat, and regional cuisine.
“I never thought that food could speak to me so emotionally,” says the 44-year-old Delgado. “I came home with a deep love and respect and passion” for the possibilities of Mexican cooking. Back at Salt, he started playing around with traditional dishes, giving them the elevated treatment he felt they deserved. Almost four years later, he opened Salomé, which offers a Mexican menu that’s unlike any other in the region. Under the direction of chef de cuisine Victor Cuellar, anything from the pre-Hispanic to the present day is fair game.
And—as I discovered sitting with a group of friends in the pretty, all-white dining room in a charming old home near downtown—“anything” includes a very fine house margarita on the rocks, its icy green depths set off by a rim of pink grapefruit salt. Further exploration of the list of cocktails, wines, and mezcals made us realize that sustenance was in order. So we put in a request for memelas, bite-size masa tarts tidily spread with a black bean puree and topped with tender seared shrimp. Even better was our next choice, croquetas, adorable puff balls made of mashed yuca rolled in cornmeal, shot through with stretchy white cheese and served astride a sumptuous serrano aioli. Then it was back to shrimp in the form of aguachile in a lovely broth of pureed guava and cantaloupe garnished with yuca chips.
On the verge of ordering entrées, I saw one last irresistible starter: a mole tasting. Delgado had told me he’d realized at Salt that his customers only thought they didn’t like mole, by which they meant the commercial versions that many restaurants use to save time and money. Turns out they highly approved of the wide variety made from scratch by his cooks. At Salomé, the trio includes a rich, winey black mole made with rare Oaxacan chiles and a dab of chocolate, a nutty green herb-and-pumpkin-seed mole, and a comforting maíz concoction called cegueza that reminded me of grits or perhaps a coarse polenta. On our visit, we got a fourth mole as a bonus, sikil p’ak, a mash-up of toasted pumpkin seeds, tomato, and a hint of habanero chile. Aha, I thought, nibbling a bite: with a little more salt it could be Mayan peanut butter.
Ready now for animal protein, we turned to cordero (lamb), the shredded meat slow-cooked in an agave-leaf wrapper. More interesting were squares of crispy pork belly set off by a sweet-sharp tamarind and guajillo chile gastrique. But the best meaty dish was the cochinita pibil, the Yucatán’s famous achiote-daubed roasted pork surrounded by a fascinating atole de maíz: think grits (yes, grits again) and kernels of fresh corn doing a complex dance with vegetal epazote and sweet stewed tomato.
Pastry chef Lyzette Alanis named Salomé’s signature dessert after Popocatépetl (“Smoking Mountain”), the famous volcano some forty miles from Mexico City. It’s been especially active this year.
Desserts must not be missed, not only because executive pastry chef Lyzette Alanis is a serious talent but because she occasionally shape-shifts into a mad scientist. In the highly accessible camp was her Coco Rayado, featuring a coconut mousse tucked into a chocolate shell with a jaunty purple pansy on top. At the other end of the spectrum was the compelling Popocatépetl, three cubes of chocolate cake, lush vanilla ice cream infused with the toasty flavor of burnt tortillas, and a couple of salty house-made fried pork rinds sprinkled liberally with a “dust” made from huitlacoche, Mexico’s famous corn fungus. You either enjoy this sort of thing or you don’t. I thought it was great fun—and delish.
Talking to Delgado after my visit, I asked about the restaurant’s name. The honoree is not the infamous New Testament figure but a local nineteenth-century personage, Salomé Ballí McAllen, who, along with her husband, once owned the land that is now present-day McAllen. As we were about to say goodbye, I had one last question: “What’s the best thing about having opened Salomé?” He thought for a few seconds. “It’s getting people to throw caution to the wind,” he said. “It’s getting them to look beyond their old faithful, favorite Mexican dish. That is our mission.”
This article originally appeared in the November issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Elevated Mexican Cuisine in McAllen.” Subscribe today.
Salomé on Main
1409 N. Main, McAllen
D Mon–Sat. $$$
Opened March 8, 2019