Writing a trendy menu is a piece of cake. You start with some charcuterie and cheeses (be sure to include Point Reyes blue), add a kale salad with pine nuts and currants, and toss in some line-caught salmon with saffron aioli. Finish with chocolate panna cotta and salted caramel in a canning jar and—bam!—you’ve got it. A far harder job is creating a bill of fare that hasn’t been done before. Yet that is exactly what Stephan Pyles has pulled off at his latest restaurant, San Salvaje. Dubious? All right, when was the last time you saw a menu with a wild mushroom and huitlacoche empanada, a cabrito taco, a sea scallop tiradito, a pork belly tacu tacu, and an alfajore torte with dulce de leche? Yes, those are classic South American and Mexican (and Texan) dishes. But there’s not another restaurant that puts them all together on a single menu. San Salvaje’s is the most novel I’ve seen in a very long time, and that’s saying something.
Arriving at the almost-downtown Dallas restaurant on a sultry July evening, I headed to the small bar, only to find one of my dining companions already there, happily testing a pink-guava caipirinha for me. Even though I had been to the place when it was Pyles’s previous restaurant, Samar, and was well acquainted with the chef’s helpless addiction to splashy decor, I had to laugh at the reconfigured dining room’s riot of colors, textiles, and artifacts. Carnaval and Cinco de Mayo exploded in here, and it looked as if Halloween might detonate at any minute—in a designerly way, of course.
At many of the fifteen-odd eating places that he has opened, Pyles has turned for inspiration to Spain and its former colonies. When I had asked him earlier about his favorite Latin American countries, he rattled off an atlas: Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, and most of Central America. But, he admitted, “Peru is at the top of the list.” So it only made sense for my group to start with that country’s signature raw fish delicacy, the tiradito. Our choice was the pretty, thin-sliced salmon veracruzana, garnished with fried capers. We could barely hear our server’s description over the happy din of the dining room, but it didn’t take more than a couple of bites to figure out that the two accompaniments—a light-green manzanilla-olive tapenade and a tomato purée spiked with cilantro and jalapeño—were a fun play on Mexico’s classic snapper Veracruz. Clever border-hopping.
Because San Salvaje’s menu is more of a survey course than an in-depth study, we moved right along to another Peruvian specialty, the causa. Pronounced “cow-sah” and based on cold mashed potatoes (hey, stay with me), the causa limeña here is a luxurious purée of Yukon golds whipped with olive oil, lime juice, and South America’s sweet aji amarillo chiles. Formed into a little stovepipe hat, they are crowned with poached shrimp, a dab of deviled-egg salad, and a gloriously runny, pink rocoto-chile mayo. When you cut into the center, you discover a dainty poached quail egg hidden inside. (It’s more fun than finding the baby Jesus in your slice of king cake.)
Tired of Peru hogging the spotlight, we switched allegiances and next tried the arepas, a dish popular in Colombia and Venezuela. A bit like well-mannered Mexican gorditas, arepas are made with a delicate corn flour called masarepa. Enticingly brown from the griddle, the pancake-like nibbles here are topped with pristine lump crabmeat, crisp radish straws, and our state’s hallmark red grapefruit; ruby-colored dabs of a sweet grapefruit-orange gel dress up the plate nicely.
We made Brazil our next port of call, specifically to try its national dish, feijoada, a subject Brazilians debate as passionately as Texans argue about chili. In San Salvaje’s version, the main meat is pork cheek—if you think veal cheeks are fantastic, you haven’t tasted anything yet—cooked sous-vide with red wine and a ham hock and then seared with a sprightly orange juice glaze. Bolstered with cranberry beans, which look and taste like large pintos, the whole thing is topped with fried house-made chicha-rrón, a potentially killer garnish that was sadly chewy the night we had it. Even so, the earthy stew, we all agreed, is one of the best things we tried.
If you’re a purist you may pause, as I did, when you see lobster and coconut milk caldo on the menu. Like America, Peru is a melting pot, but even so, this rich soup, pungent with lemongrass, is pretty much pure Thai. With a base of lobster broth and cubes of sweet potato, it is one of two odd-man-out dishes on the menu (the other is the fantastic yellowfin tuna ceviche with ginger and kaffir lime, served in a crystalline coconut water gelée). Strictly speaking, the flavor profiles of the two don’t fit the rest of the Spanish-influenced menu, but they are so wonderful that I would have been sorry to miss them. Pyles is obviously of the same mind.
The desserts return obediently to the South American fold. The suspiro is a swirl of well-toasted passion fruit meringue atop a silken pudding made from the yellow-fleshed tropical fruit lucuma (it reminded me of caramel, or possibly maple). Our second favorite was the trio of small, warm anise-sugar-dusted sweet potato doughnuts with a scoop of guanabana ice cream (think strawberry and pineapple with a sneaky citrus undertone).
Strolling out of the restaurant to find that a little breeze had miraculously swept away the heat of the day, I couldn’t help thinking how delightfully unpredictable San Salvaje is. It’s modern but doesn’t traffic in trends. It’s accessible but exotic. Its mission statement—“Celebrating the union of pagan indigenous culture and a host of revered saints in Latin America”—is enigmatic yet ecumenical. (In case you’re curious, the name is pronounced “San Sal-vah-hay” and means “Wild Saint.”) Ever since Pyles opened his first restaurant, Routh Street Cafe, in 1983, he’s gone out of his way to avoid the obvious. Periodically he opens a strategic crowd-pleaser, like 2012’s Texas-centric Stampede 66, but then he screws his courage to the sticking place and inches out on the tightrope again. “I love the creative process,” he says. “I’ve never been as interested in authenticity as in using it for inspiration. That way nobody can say their mother’s or grandmother’s version is better than mine.”
2100 Ross Ave, Dallas
L Mon–Fri., D Mon–Sat. $$$
Opened May 12, 2014