Latino Pupae

have seen the metamorphosis, the changes in customer behavior." --Dante Picazo

Before Dante Picazo began his quest to tickle American tongues with a full deck of Latin flavors, he was running a small bingo room and a couple of blackjack tables at Station Casino Hotels in Las Vegas. This taught him something. He learned to appreciate the art of the gamble. He also learned, after layering his casino seasoning with experience at Hilton and Marriott hotels and a stint as a director of operations for Miami Subs, to sensitize his gaze to shifting consumer tastes.

Years ago he noticed: "The Mexican plate was the greatest thing in the world for someone to eat...and the bigger it was, the more people would eat. Back in those days the idea was to eat platters of cheese and beans with the lard."

Now he observes: "By the time people eat those things, they don't want to go back to the office to work. And if it's dinner, especially the baby boomers, you can't eat a meal like that and expect to have a good night's sleep."

Those days from years ago have been largely discarded, scraped away by the sharp edges of cholesterol numerology, obesity alerts, arterial plaque and a deep desire to play-act smart, healthy lifestyles.

Picazo believes Mexican cuisine altered by subtle Latino mutations can satiate the hungers aroused by these shifts. The flavors rising from Spain, the Caribbean, and South and Central America, are not only robust, they're lithe, sophisticated and dripping with mass appeal--low dangling fruit ripe for multi-unit, fast-casual exploitation and the spermatozoa for Tijuana Bar & Grill.

Out on the patio overlooking Monticello Avenue and the concrete meadow fronting the Central Expressway trench, a server earnestly pushes Calina Reserva Carmenere, a red wine from Chile. This is the featured drink. (The plasticized wine list boasts half-price bottles on Wednesday.) His salesmanship is intense. "If you'd like, I'll bring you a sample of it," he says. "It's very good." He delivers a shallow splash.

It doesn't seduce. Another red wine, a MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir, arrives with a musty wisp--from being opened and idled for too long, most likely--and is delivered warm.

The air is cool. A manager whisks onto the patio with a torch to fire up a couple of outdoor heaters. Small speakers blare Mexican music to levels that nearly drown out the diesel engine idling somewhere nearby. Fine wine with Mexican food--or rather Moderno-Mex--is a relatively new phenomenon, a decade old perhaps. But this is merely a stage in the shape shift. "The mojito will be one of the most widely known drinks in the country in the next 10 years," Picazo promises of the mint-muddled Cuban rum drink. "It will be the new margarita." Tijuana offers a broad litter of mojitos.

It does so in a cocoon that is crisp, bright and diner-ish, with large lighted menus at the front counter and drink dispensers just aft of the kitchen for counter service at lunch. Curvaceous blond wood chairs saddled to blond laminate tables topped with teal and beige napkins trim the dining room at dusk. Picazo calls it "modern Latino," a quick, sleek space where doctors can come in their scrubs, lawyers in their shorts and baseball players in their jerseys, mingling with the masses as they gnaw on tacos that precariously threaten to unravel in the fist.

Chips are delivered in cones spun from wire and lined with bleached paper. Chips barely peak over the brim. Wire modules posted on either side of the cone cradle ramekins of tomato red and green tomatillo salsas that are warm and deliciously robust. Chips are cool and dull. Their jagged edges beg for a plunge.

Tijuana food is mostly temperate, mildly twisting things like tomato salad caprese by layering thick, juicy beefsteak tomato slices with cilantro pesto and feta and manchego cheeses. It doesn't rattle comfort zones or challenge preconceptions, despite names that tease.

Short ribs from Brazil? The boneless beef rests in Brazilian chipotle chili ooze bumped with mushroom caps. The sauce is brown and unctuous, like a classic demi-glacé but a little lighter and less imposing on the attack. The plate contains a puff of fluffy Cuban rice crackling with garlic, a piece of buttered toast, vegetables and a wedge of lime. Rib meat is juicy and tender. The promise is ripe. But as the meat is whittled with fork tines, it loosens into fatty pulp--a quivering nub of steer cellulite, jiggling like a Jell-O mold.

Cuban sandwiches, sautéed plantains, Argentine steak churrasco (pinned with low-carb designation) in chimichurri sauce and Peruvian ceviche have found spots on the Tijuana menu as well. The latter is an ample spread of creamy calamari, nubs of scallop and tightly looped shrimp resting on a bed of lettuce, red cabbage and red onion spread over a flat dish. The seafood is marinated in lime, olive oil and garlic before it's tumbled over the greens along with bits of faded tomato. Long stalks of jicama and narrow slices of avocado lean into the heap, while odd groupings of pepperoncini and Greek olives cluster at the corners. Though competent, this ceviche lacks vigor of fish succumbing to an unrelenting tide of citrus. To compensate, a ramekin of unctuous silvery-beige dressing sits in the wings, waiting to be drooled over the listless seafood.

Tijuana is bankrolled by a loose but fascinating cast of characters. To execute the Latin dream (Latinolucious in Tijuana menu jargon), Picazo has assembled a team of investors that includes Javier Gutierrez of Javier's ("You won't find a single enchilada on that menu"); lawyer Brian Cuban, brother of Mavericks mogul Mark; and elements of the Miami Sound Machine.

Picazo likens Tijuana to P.F. Chang's in that it Americanizes Latin in much the same way Chang's gringos-up Chinese. He already has inked plans to spread Tijuana to the corner of Lemmon and Oak Lawn avenues, and his gaze is currently scanning North Dallas, Las Colinas and California. One of his partners has licensed the concept for a spot in Frisco.

But perhaps the oddest stage in Picazo's metamorphosis is the upcoming home delivery center called Tijuana Taxi express, which will deliver fully prepared meals within a two-mile radius along with any number of up to 250 of the most demanded convenience items: a six pack of beer, a bottle of wine or a package of Nyquil for instance. Picazo calls it "7-Eleven on wheels," or he will until the cease-and-desist letter arrives.

This Latin tandem fills a space where Italian once reined. It was Toscana before it was Eccolo Ristorante and Enoteca before it was Vino & Basso. They all succumbed to cash hemorrhages and lawsuit ailments.

So it's odd to see the space give birth to an operation so brazenly primed for prolific duplication. Tijuana has spiral-bound menus with lush entrée photos on glossy card stock--Cheesecake Factory-like. Yet with the prototype opening last June, the gestation period seems lengthy. "You can't duplicate and be half-assed," explains Picazo. "You can't be half-pregnant."

No you can't. And some asses yearn for completion. Some elements of the seafood soup--the rubberized crab legs filled with mushy flesh, the tough, gummy octopus, the hard shrimp--seem to have been resuscitated from a deep freeze before being plunged into a lusty broth spiraling off coils of pungent mist.

Fish tacos--shreds of cabbage and threads of cheese packed into two-ply folds of supple flour tortilla--hold a paucity of sparsely seasoned grilled tilapia. And though it spits and hisses from a hot platter, pollo al champignon with peppers, caramelized shallots and mushrooms is leadened with dry, flavorless chicken breast.

Though Tijuana cuisine incessantly bobbles between adequate to just above adequate, the reasonable prices more than make up for lack of culinary elevation. And once the Taxi service is launched, you can have this food shuttled to your door along with a bottle of Nyquil--no doubt the foundation for next stage in the mojito metamorphosis. 4900 McKinney Ave., 214-443-9293. Open 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday; Open 10:30 a.m.-midnight Friday & Saturday. $$


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