By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
La Joya means "the jewel," or some such. So right off the bat there's an expectation. Why do restaurants do this? Why do they promise emeralds and deliver smoky quartz? Much better to open a restaurant called terrón del carbón (lump of coal) and let the intense heat and pressures of culinary brilliance transform it into DeBeers on the plate.
Much of the stuff at La Joya is boilerplate, but that doesn't mean boilerplate can't be transcendent. Making the pedestrian transcendent is a far higher achievement than the uncanny groundbreaker because the common has to struggle against its very nature to stun; it has to weave a veil from 1,000 perfect subtleties to reach reverence. It isn't the chips that do it, though they are thin and perfectly brittle and warm and salted into rightness. It isn't the blood-deep, rich roasted tomato salsa with flecks of cilantro wilted in the warmth. It isn't the cool tomatillo salsa with garlic and avocado and chilies and a shot of lime. It's these things knotted loosely together—the crisp, the heat, the cool, the tang, the punch, the rich, the salty, the red, the blond, the green. It's the lusty herbaceous fume that inebriates from the nose hairs to the gullet. La Joya!—to borrow a phrase.
And these are just the chips. What about ceviche? It's approachable, this cocktail glass filled with pulverized marine mush into which are sunk wavy brittle tortilla strips that ribbon upward like frozen licks of steam. Tilapia, lobster and shrimp are minced and interlaced with pico de gallo—onion, tomato, pepper, avocado, slivers of cucumber—congealing into a mosaic of bits and shards zipped with a spit of lime. There are no lush nuggets of sea flesh to chew and savor, no puddle of salty lime sluiced with fish runoff to tingle and water the tongue. It's all a little dry and pasty, and you have to dowse to find the juice drained deep into the bottom of the glass.
Yet La Joya reeks of delicious peculiarities. Ripe avocado wedges are enveloped in flour sassed with spicy lime then fried and dribbled with spicy cream—an exile from the tempura vegetable plate. Sometimes the peculiarities get so virile that entrées mate with dessert and leave you breathless. Relleno en Nogada is nothing more than a bloated poblano pepper, delicately breaded, filled until its seams stretch with roasted pork loin, caramelized apples, peaches and pears, bananas infused with cinnamon and toasted almonds. It's layer upon layer of fragrance and hints of sweet and strata of savory that make war before they make love between sheets of deep-fried crinkly skin. It soaks in a milky shimmer of white Mexican wine walnut sauce. The top is pebbled with pomegranate seeds—a musky sticky bun.
Oaxaca and Cotija cheeses are flamed in lava rock molcajete (mortar and pestle) to breed a queso that can be seasoned with chorizo or mushrooms or poblano peppers.
La Joya is the work of the Oseguera family and their sheaf of family recipes that siphon inspiration from the small village of Cotija (for whom the cheese was named) in the southwestern state of Michoacán—loosely translated as "place of those who have fish" in the Nahuatl language. The Pacific Ocean laps Michoacán's southern border. The family established seven restaurants in Arkansas—mostly in Hot Springs and Little Rock—showcasing these family works. Hot Springs tourists, mostly from Dallas, begged them to bring it all here, assuring them their cuisine would thrive.
So they slipped it into a Las Colinas strip mall next to a ScottTrade brokerage outlet. It's an obsessive marriage of organic fecundity with contemporary sterility. Concrete floors and a black ceiling trimmed in tucked black fabric tussle with river stones and thick rough-hewn wood beams. Wood tables are surrounded with chairs composed of polished metal and black rubbery mesh. The open kitchen is glaring glass and stainless steel leavened with wood slats. The dining room and bar are separated by a row of suspended conical vases as long as rhino tusks, each holding a single Gerbera daisy stem.
Are there misfits here? Sure. The 12-ounce rib eye is a rumpled and pocked stretch of gristle and fat with tough ligatures binding one sorry lack of tenderness to another. It's too much for the ingenious marinade of salt, garlic and Negro Modelo beer to resuscitate. But there is a pair of chiles toreados for a focal point—deep fried jalapeños with a sting so concentrated that the staff dubs them "very angry peppers."
The layered Azteca is more promise than fulfillment. Tucked in a fried tortilla shell, this salad is a collision of tomato, guacamole, sour cream, refried beans, melted cheese and grilled chicken tossed with a paucity of lettuce.
Nonetheless it's the little details that intercede and captivate. An appetizer assortment, cast as antojitos de la casa, is a quesadilla, gordita, tamale, tostada, flautas with chicken, guacamole and pico de gallo. But it's not just that. Quesadillas are remarkable, stuffed with marinated chicken tethered with soft but chewy strands of Cotija cheese that's aged into the same pungent raciness that sweats from the finest Parmesan or feta but somehow comes across with far more mystery. Tamales are so supple and moist and rich with maize headiness that you'd swear some fungus-derived drug lurks in there somewhere.