Mucho fun

Macho's Cafe and Bar dishes up some spendid Cuban cuisine

"Oh hi, Arthur."
What else was there to say? The waiter and I went way back. No point in dragging out the wig and shades now.

It's one of the dangers of attempting to review restaurants anonymously in the town where you grew up--you run into yourself coming and going.

I recently dined at Macho's Cafe and Bar with my parents, who made the reservation in their name, a name I haven't shared through the past quarter of a century and two husbands. Of course, that's the name Arthur knew. Well, how was I to know that of all the gin joints in all the world, this one had hired a friend from my junior high?

"Is this a professional dinner?" asked Arthur (a musician, of course).
As if there were any other kind of dining in my life. What else was there to do? "No, I'm just here with Mother and Dad."

Sorry, Arthur. I lied.
Credibility is a constant question in my job. Readers tend to believe you're paid off by the restaurateurs, and restaurateurs believe your sole agenda is to destroy their business. You're always making reservations under assumed names and trying your hair a new way for a revisit. It can't help any to tell you I lied outright, but Arthur probably didn't believe me, anyway.

My cover was blown, so unless I knew you in junior high school, or unless Arthur recognizes you from his stints at Nostromo and White Swan, you may not get the effusive greeting from Nester Macho (the cafe's owner) that we did, the considerate service, or the after-dinner tour of the bar.

Then again, you might. I really think that effusive is just Macho's style, and now that he's retreated from a budding multi-restaurant demi-empire back to a single mom and pop cafe, Macho's enthusiasm and hospitality greet you at the front door almost every night--just as wife Khris is in the kitchen almost every night. The personal touch is back with both hands.

Though the White Swans, which were Macho's previous endeavors, had a definite indefinable charm, the food was consistently inconsistent. I never ate anything at either White Swan as good as the food I had at Macho's Cafe and Bar. White Swan's food seemed to come from a commissary--too much overlap, too many dishes that relied on the same basic stuff, so you felt the kitchen was mixing and matching more than cooking.

At Macho's, every dish we tried from the (overly) extensive menu had its own character, though there certainly was a garlicky sensibility at work in most of them. We stayed away from the long list of Italian-style pastas and veal dishes--Macho's, like everyplace else, is "Mediterranean" now--and ordered almost exclusively the Spanish-Cuban dishes that are so much rarer in Dallas restaurants and which form the real personality of this fun cafe.

And we thought Macho's was tons o' fun. Maybe because we began with a frozen rum, champagne, and pineapple juice concoction--a Jimmy Buffett parrothead, beachy kind of drink--the kind of thing I'm snobby about, then immediately succumb to when the mercury hits three digits.

Brains frozen, we turned to the tapas list, a menu of sharable snacks.
Macho's is in the old Chimney location, the sweet Swiss restaurant that used to be a fixture in the shopping area below those apartments that always burn down at Walnut Hill and Central. But Macho has loosened it up a little; he's draped the place with his signature lace curtains and garlands of dried flowers, somehow managing to give these rooms the same casual prettiness White Swan had.

There's something foreign and romantic about Macho's Cafe--could it be the effect of too much garlic? It inspires daydreams and simple fantasies. You imagine dropping in for a rendezvous, ordering a bottle of wine to drink slowly through an evening with a series of tapas, by and by wandering over to the bar where there's a piano player or live band (often Cuban-style jazz--don't miss Hector Munoz every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday in July) and sometimes, ballroom dancing.

A tall dark stranger might figure in the picture (that's the rum, not the garlic, talking). Well, I'm just the dining critic, folks--my dinnertime rendezvous involves a notebook and a pen--but back-of-the-book romance seekers perhaps should keep Macho's in mind. It's that kind of place.

So, turning to the notebook and speaking of garlic, we ate Spanish gambas, sizzling shrimp in hot garlic butter, flecked with fiery pepper, and an empanada, its brown crust holding a picadillo of spicy ground beef and onions, with a tart cranberry-jalapeno sauce. Just four bites, one for each.

A little plate of plantains, fried to a dark lacy brown, turning their grassy taste to sexy caramel, proved that heat works wonders on bananas and all their cousins. A tamal Cuban-style: sweet cornmeal, smoky salty ham, onions--did I mention garlic? Tapas are just flashes of flavor in the mouth, never becoming so familiar as to be cloying, never requiring commitment. They're the one-night stand of the dinner table.

Entrees, now, those are more than a fling. Take arroz con pollo, a mother's dish of tender chicken pieces over rice al dente, not the gummy pot dish we'd had at White Swan, but still substantial. This is food you want to settle down with. Shrimp enchilado was what we might call shrimp creole--not a tortilla in sight--the little crustaceans in a sharp, peppery, tomato-pasty sauce.

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