Breaking all the rules

So, what do you think they teach them over in the business school at Southern Methodist University--if they're not going to work for dad's law firm when they graduate, I mean? I can't help wondering, because we just met this guy, Scott King, who graduated, went into real estate, and when that didn't work out, he opened a restaurant. I think I could make better business decisions than that with my Latin degree.

Mr. King must have gotten smart somewhere, because the punch line is (of course) that his restaurant, Flying Burro, is a hit.

"Pat Snuffer told me, if you serve good food well, you don't have to worry about the rest of it." Pat Snuffer is right and King is, too, to listen to his neighbors. He's made a lot of friends in the neighborhood where he opened his restaurant in a prime corner spot across the street from The Grape and next to Greenville Avenue Bar and Grill--blue-blood Lower Greenville real estate.

The front of the menu reads, "Welcome to the Flying Burro, where we know we need some color on the walls," and King has got the team that put James Dean on the back wall of Kirby's--another neighborhood institution--painting a mural on his (blank) walls.

If there's one thing I've learned to watch out for, it's places run by people who opened a restaurant because they "thought it would be fun." King's motivation is close to that: He opened Flying Burro because he missed the Mexican food he enjoyed in his hometown of Silver City, New Mexico--another rule of thumb broken.

Dallas has a couple of other New Mexican-style Mexican restaurants, and one of them is pretty good, but both of them focus on the quality that (besides shopping opportunities) most attracts Dallasites to Santa Fe: visual charm. Conspicuously absent from Flying Burro are hornos, adobe, vigas or latillas, whimsical folk-art sculptures, or anything painted turquoise. Instead, Flying Burro is--like the majority of untouristy restaurants in New Mexico--pretty much decor-free, with the exception of the afore-mentioned mural-in-progress and a few overblown photographs.

The only decorations in the bar are rows of bottles, a promising sign that fulfills itself if you order the Burro's top-shelf margarita and ask to have it made with fresh lime juice. You'll actually receive a hand-mixed drink in a salt-rimmed martini glass. (Perhaps more surprisingly, you can even taste the tequila in the frozen margaritas.)

So, the Burro's purpose is to serve New Mexican-style Mexican food, not Tex-Mex. There is a fairly clear distinction between the two, though it's not so clear at the Flying Burro. Of course, King's palate might have been polluted by his years at SMU. But even though the Burro's cuisine is far from purist, skirting the scorched-palate philosophy of much New Mexican food, it's purely good and that, as his good neighbor Pat pointed out, is the point.

New Mexican Mexican food and Tex-Mex food share the same roots, obviously, but instead of cowboys, New Mexico had Indians. Instead of cows, they had pigs, sheep, and turkeys and instead of oil and ranch money, they had none. So New Mexican food is usually more austere, earthier, and chile- rather than beef-based.

The Burro's food doesn't have the starkness that makes New Mexican chile, for instance, so elegant in contrast to the lush, beef-based Tex-Mex stew. In the New Mexican version, the chile pepper itself is the star, because chiles come from New Mexico. No one produces more and no one knows more about chile peppers than New Mexicans.

At Flying Burro the food has literally been beefed up: It's far richer and meatier than traditional New Mexican food. Even the colors are different: Some of the cheese is orange (in New Mexico, it's mostly blond) and there's no blue corn anywhere. But the chiles are plentiful and diverse. The menu actually specifies that it's a New Mexico Big Jim that's stuffed and fried to make the chile relleno.

The Sapilla combination plate is like a New Mexican version of a Tex-Mex combo: It offers a fat turkey and green-chile burrito, the shredded meat and chile folded into a tidy flour-tortilla package, along with two meaty tamales and a serving of chile con carne, blocks of beef stewed until tender in a fundamental brick-red chile sauce. Like a Tex-Mex plate, it has lots of protein, but the sharp green-chile bite and the stark red-chile sauce are essential New Mexican flavors.

There are only three combination plates, but there is a whole section of "Things in a Bowl" including red and green chile con carne, Texas-style chili, and posole, otherwise known as "hog 'n' hominy." We tried the tortilla soup, a wide bowl filled with stewed chicken, corn kernels, and vegetables in a milky, rose-colored chicken broth. There weren't many undissolved tortillas in it and none of the precious garnishes like avocado cubes with which the New Southwest chefs have embellished this dish. This was more what you'd imagine a good New Mexican mother serving an invalid--taste-teasing and nourishing.

By the way, I have remarked before that it's seldom worth remarking on the quality of the chips and dips at a Mexican restaurant. They're to be taken for granted, like restrooms and ice water. But the Burro's salsa was a fine thick mix, with lots of flavor and a chile burn that built up as you ate it.

The next course, a combination appetizer plate, offered us a taste of everything in that category. The rather surprising Winnie's Killer Queso, a chile con queso, combined unmelted shredded cheese with chopped peppers--a more direct, in-your-face dish than typical melted Tex-Mex cheese-food. Stuffed jalapeos were corn-crusted bullets, nachos were yawners, and quesadillas were steamy and soggy from the hot plate; but the strange little New Mexican pizzas--squares of bread topped with green chiles, black olives, chorizo, and tomato sauce--were extraordinary, the kind of vivid little mouthfuls the French call amuse-gueules because they really do stimulate your mouth's imagination.

Even before Santa Fe became a suburb of Dallas, there was one thing every Texan knew about New Mexican food: They stack their enchiladas. This used to be talked of in a tone that implied the hopeless eccentricity that could provoke such behavior, or maybe Texans thought New Mexicans were just too lazy to roll their tortillas. (No wonder Texans aren't popular in the neighbor state.) The Burro serves enchiladas stacked and rolled; we tried both kinds. New Mexico-style, each tortilla is dipped in a red-chile wash, then piled like pancakes with cheese and onions, doused with chile sauce and topped with a fried egg. The Texas version assembles all the same ingredients, except the egg, in tubular formation. Not surprisingly, they were both good. Surprisingly, the style does make a difference: Stacked enchiladas are messier, the tortillas are more tender, and the texture is softer and somehow more sensual. It's typical that the Texan ones are more uptight.

Another entree, puerco asada, round slices of loin rubbed with spice and coated with bright achiote chile sauce, had been pounded too thin to be grilled to the "juicy perfection" advertised by the menu, but they were tasty, though slightly chewy bits of meat. They were served with calabacitas, the Indian-based traditional New Mexican vegetable mixture of carrots, zucchini, and corn. (In Tex-Mex cuisine, there are few vegetables.) Everything came with typical tomato-tinged Spanish rice, slightly scorched on our first visit, probably just because the kitchen was overpowered by the unexpected crowd.

Flying Burro may not look like much yet, but its highly personal interpretation of the established favorite cuisine is a welcome addition to the neighborhood and to the Dallas dining landscape. Proof: The place has been jammed for weeks.

Oh, and one parting thought: Did you know that the jackalope capital of the world is Douglas, Wyoming? There's an oversized statue of the fabled mammal smack in the middle of downtown, right where a Civil War hero should go. It's a surprising fact for those of us who grew up assuming that the jackalope was a creation of Texas braggadocio. I'm not questioning why Wyoming wildlife is a featured part of--indeed, the Flying Burro's only stab at--decor. I'm just suggesting that, since Mr. King is holding a "name that jackalope" contest for the restaurant's only accessory, he should prove he really is smart and name it Doug.

Flying Burro, 2831 Greenville Ave., 827-2112. Open Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-midnight; Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.

Flying Burro:
Sapillo Combination Plate $6.95
Puerco Asado $9.95
Tortilla Soup $5.50
Combo Appetizer Platter $8.50
Vegetable Burritos $5.75

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