Tex-Mex establishments usually thrive on the come-as-you-are crowd, drawing from a vast array of jeans and ball caps and, long about brunch on Sunday, ashen faces desperately in need of warmed chips.

But there's a strange vibe at Jorge's Tex-Mex on opera nights.

As I waited near the bar for a friend to pick her way through traffic and construction outside One Arts Plaza, men in pressed suits jostled by, carrying plates of greasy brisket nachos to their well-appointed dates. In the adjacent dining room, patrons draped in gowns, suits and at least one tux scraped up forkfuls of refried beans and chili con carne. Just doesn't seem right. If it wasn't for that familiar "taco seasoning" aroma wafting through the room, I never would've suspected this a Tex-Mex chain—and a pricey one at that.

Among its standard Tex-Mex chain fare, Jorge’s offers up several delightful surprises.
Sara Kerens
Among its standard Tex-Mex chain fare, Jorge’s offers up several delightful surprises.

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Jorge's Tex-Mex Cafe

1722 Routh St., 122
Dallas, TX 75201

Category: Restaurant > Tex-Mex

Region: Downtown & Deep Ellum

Details

Jorge’s Tex-Mex Brisket nachos $13 Shrimp quesadilla $12 Ceviche $12 Midland botana $18 Caldo de pozole $10 Tamales $13 Huevos rancheros $11 Asado de puerco $14

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Jorge's began life in Midland, growing to fill several locations there and in neighboring Odessa, then spreading to Amarillo before finally venturing east. The year-old Dallas outpost rubs shoulders with upscale One Arts tenants like Tei An and Dali, yet food-wise appears to have more in common with the corner 7-Eleven—until you get past some of the more common dishes.

Depending upon your order, Jorge's can be very common, indeed: refried beans indistinguishable from the Old El Paso brand, the quality of pico you might find at a quick-service place, the same dull "Spanish rice" served in buffet lines and so forth. Mini chimichangas are crisp, meaty treats (and a good idea, appetizer-wise). But if the menu hadn't insisted the Midland Botana appetizer platter came with shrimp quesadillas, I'd swear they stuffed them with tinned mushrooms. And the campfire flavor of brisket on those nachos is lost in a mat of gooey orange cheese.

This is the sort of pre-fabricated mass you find at so many Tex-Mex chains. But I must concede that this particular restaurant can surprise you.

My first visit—on a Friday night crowded with Winspear Opera House types—was disappointing only until the moment I reached for the tamales. Surrounded by rice and refried bean filler were two buttery, rich threads of masa. They seemed to welcome a touch of con carne without yielding too much of that warm, earthy character. Each bite awakened a memory: the first time you tried tamales from a roadside cart, the rustic comfort of a Southwestern hearth...damn, they're good.

Not counting those served by some mom-and-pop Mexican joints, Jorge's tamales were the best I've had in a long time. But they followed a martini glass of "overcooked" ceviche and huevos rancheros noticeably lacking in the ranchero part. Nothing wrong with the over-easy eggs, mind you, but in a Southwestern setting they need a foil besides a child-size handful of diced potato and two bacon strips.

So what happened? Even my dinner companion had this "where the hell did that come from?" look on her face after just one bite of the tamale entrée...although she probably wouldn't have used those exact words.

We decided it was a one-off deal, perhaps attributable to seasonal hiring—which means we both assumed the restaurant paid some Mexican grandmothers to prepare tamales for holiday take-away menus. But a few days later I stopped by for an order of asado de puerco and was presented with cubes of tender pork in a meaty Colorado sauce braced by loads of cumin, honed with tomato and garlic. This was all bucked by a strong reminder of beef, as if they'd first made a batch of chili...and it worked surprisingly well with the pork.

Too bad they plate this with the same old forgettable rice and refried bean sides. They'd be better off serving it as a stand-alone.

Their caldo de pozole is another surprise, considering everything. It fixes hominy and shredded chicken in a robust red broth that almost burns with savory brackishness. Each spoonful threatens to scrape your palate—and it clings so desperately with saline claws that you wonder just when the soup will start to inflict pain.

But something unexpected occurs: The continuous sodium assault never really crests. As dense as it seems even after several spoonfuls, the briny sensation eventually begins to ebb and a warm, herbal feeling flows forward in its place supported by peppery heat. Midway through the bowl, it has transformed from blistering to hearty and satisfying. Mixing in some of the chopped red onions provided on the side further soothes the broth, adding a crisp, vegetal bitterness for good measure.

Of course, the menu mentioned something about rice on the side too—but it went missing, as did the promised tortillas.

This last may be the biggest surprise, because from my experience, Jorge's front-of-house staff is a poised, professional bunch. A question about their margaritas on one visit caused my waiter to pause and ask just how much I like the cocktail—a general question, not one directed at the house version then in front of me.

"I love real margaritas," I said in response. It's my snide (and ineffective) way of putting down all margaritas made with sweet and sour mix.

He not only launched into a "next time you might want to try" sales pitch, he explained some of the nuances, a little bit about the tequila in question, addressed the sweet and sour issue—indicating they used only a few drops to soften the cocktail—and then brought over a sample. It was tart much more than sweet, with a soft, grassy undertone and hint of bitter orange.

He's right. It's closer to what I call a real margarita.

The waiter on my first visit seemed shy about his English language skills. I had a hard time finding the right words to let him know I needed to add $5 to the tip in order to get change for the valet. Instead of letting it drop, he solved the matter by calling a manager. Clearly someone has impressed the staff with the importance of customer service.

Service and atmosphere matter more than food, at least in terms of someone enjoying their evening out. General manager Camilo Calderon—an alumni of Stephan Pyles, Dragonfly and the Crescent Court (where he directed room service)—clearly understands this. I credit him, his staff and those beautiful tamales for the positive memories I have of Jorge's.

Otherwise, it's a hit-and-miss Tex-Mex kitchen in the heart of fine dining territory.

Jorge’s Tex-Mex 1722 Routh St. (One Arts Plaza), 214-720-2211. Open 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday. $$$
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