The Haunting

Tradicion can't shake the ghost of restaurants past

The things about Tradicion that stick in the mind are the remnants, the leftovers. Tradicion is the work of Ricardo Avila. Avila grips the reins (along with his mother) of Avila's, a Tex-Mex staple on Maple Avenue for more than 20 years. Tradicion penetrated the odd space that was once Fusion (and once the Vietnamese-centric Edamame). Fusion haunts Tradicion—disturbingly so. Fusion's ghost so completely imbues Tradicion, you see apparitions of beef tataki and pan-seared shiitakes in your sope de brisket if you squint just right. Why is this?

Fusion was a bold statement written by John Le, a one-time executive sushi chef at Steel Restaurant & Lounge. He slashed behind the sushi bar at Blue Fish and Nakamoto too. Fusion was an Asian amalgam—from sushi to Peking duck—that suffered from odd placement (upwind from Bob's Steak and Chop House in a Tex-Mex thicket), odd architecture (a second story restaurant—nearly always deadly—over a parking garage) and a threadbare moniker (global fusion being the worn tire of the culinary lexicon).

But maybe there was a seed here to explain the emergence of Tradicion. Fusion had remarkable (and at $21, pricey) ceviche, a tiny martini glass blooming with cubes and slivers of octopus, tuna, yellowtail, flounder, snapper and the requisite vegetation—tomato, onion and cucumber, the latter sliced into negligee sheerness. It was soaked in Japanese lime, orange, tangerine and Chardonnay hopped up on garlic and pepper. A tortilla strip was wedged into the flesh and veggies.

The ceviche is good, but too little attention is paid to details at Tradicion.
TOM JENKINS
The ceviche is good, but too little attention is paid to details at Tradicion.

Tradicion has ceviche, five renditions. Flounder is the centerpiece in the ceviche de la casa, and it is so overwhelmed with lime that the taste buds most sensitive to acids do most of the work, leaving the rest of the organ exhausted. The fish and tomato and pepper and onion can't be easily teased out.

Shrimp ceviche with little cubes of mango is assembled on a tostada with a lime simmer that's just about perfect, generating that firm, slightly gummy texture that whets the tomato acids and tames the chili bites.

The striped bass ceviche is so-so and rests on a lettuce leaf amongst a blizzard of tomatoes and onions and peppers. Ceviche Veracruzano with snapper has a different blizzard, with pieces of snapper buried under and amongst a healthy tumble of chopped black olives, tomatoes and thyme, giving it a Mediterranean flare. This is the standout ceviche. It effectively supplants citrus with subdued brackishness, taking a different slant on the fish. Craving citrus? Squeeze the swelling lemon half, cut in harsh serrations, over the hillock.

Still, the Fusion residues are distracting. There is the idled sushi bar with its granite bar surface, its refrigerated display case compartments now used for storage. There are the polished granite table surfaces and the holdover banquettes that (in one instance) create the sensation of dining on a waterbed, the springs are so worn.

There is the same spindly overhanging metal rack over the bar, a sculpture simulating grapevines or leafless kudzu or a crown of thorns with its ring broken and its twiny twigs stretched out. The checks still say "Fusion Restaurant" at the top.

There isn't much Tradicion here, except for the pink and purple sheers dressing the windows and the pink crystal chandeliers over the sushi bar. Too much of it is borrowed or even filched. We had to ask for place settings. Margaritas, good as they are, are served in pedestrian juice glasses. Fresh glasses don't accompany your second Corona, or even your third. Tradicion feels lazy.

And it is. Its billing is staked not only on ceviches but on masa staples: sope de brisket (corn cakes topped with brisket), tacos, tamales and quesadillas. Tacos al pastor filled with shredded pork braised with onion and pineapple are dry, the pork shreds frayed like worn twine. Tamales, swaddled in corn husks are surprisingly timid, the pork too pulverized and overcooked to carry its own tune.

Guacamole is better than most. It's fresh and chunky, rich and invigorating—more from onion and tomato than from lime, which could be squeezed over it liberally and not tip any of its balances out of whack.

The ceviche Veracruzano meant we had compelling interest in the halibut Veracruzano, till we heard this: It's not as good as it sounds. You'll be disappointed.

"I'm giving you my honest opinion," our server says. She steers us into the sea bass. The sea bass mojo de ajo is simply grilled and served in garlic and white wine and olive oil. There is a mound of separate fluffy rice.

On a patch of greens rests a remarkable thing: a delicate saucer-like shell sculpted from corn flour with pulverized chilies and tomato to give it a bronze cast—a hue not unlike skin after a slathering of tanning foam. Inside this gossamer-thin corn pastry is a creamy roasted corn sauce: sweet, thick, rich and then savory.

The fish itself is a spread of gray flesh that flecks and flakes but is a little rubbery and slithers from too much oil in the sauce, though the flavor is good and the garlic and wine come through.

Tradicion's chile relleno is among the oddest of the species you'll see in Dallas. There is no overbearing coating or sheath of thick ranchero sauce swamping it. The roasted poblano pepper, deep green with potency, tightly tapered, is oddly exposed. Here the poblano truly is centerpiece. It isn't cooked into mush. The filling, shredded chicken, recedes under the force of poblano weight. This is a pepper with everything else reduced to subtleties. Chile rellenos aren't for everybody, and among those who revel in it, this version isn't for many of them. Loud in its nakedness, brazen in its minimalism, this dish rings true among its kind.

Not so the steak a la Mexicana, a bone-in 14-ounce slab of graying beef (ordered medium rare) with pasty fat pockets in juiceless mediocrity. It's topped with a ranchero sauce rippled with tomatoes and chipotle onions. You could taste the packaging on this steak, which means it was either old or freezer-burned or frozen and thawed and frozen again or some combination thereof.

Why does Tradicion seem like a restaurant that can't quite accept itself? Why does it suffer from a lack of resolve and obliviousness to details? Why is the dining room a hash of holdovers instead of brushed with a distinctive Mexican flare? These are the questions that haunt Tradicion. These are the questions that spook the menu. These are the questions that might scare you away.

4334 Lemmon Ave., 214-520-5974. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. $$-$$$.

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