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Lucky 13

Triskaidekaphobics--that's people afraid of the number 13--could find their cure waiting on Trece's menu.
Tom Jenkins

It's hard to get used to the 4513 Travis St. address in this guise. Its predecessor Sipango was a temple of boho chic, a hall of used brick and mortar grit softened by dense nicotine cumulus roiling in the bar. The Cal-Ital cuisine, dispensed from a semi-open kitchen with a wood-burning pizza kiln, was served on white tablecloths. In the bar, drink specials were scrawled on a blackboard near the stage from which live pseudo jazz spilled. More bars popped out of the woodwork and up from the ground: Rio Room, a dance club; and Sellar, a subterranean private club fashioned out of discarded trendy furniture, further adding to the stylized grit. Granted, the grit part of this equation overcame the trendy ambiance near the end, what with the attempted clumsy comeback of founding chef Matthew Antonovich and the lawsuit and bankruptcy.

On the other hand, maybe it isn't that hard to get used to the new space.

Trece, Spanish for 13, plays off this 4513 address. In an industry where beating back bad luck is all-consuming, it takes guts to select a restaurant name reminiscent of the Jason-in-a-hockey-mask slasher franchise, even if it is in Spanish. And the number 13 is repeatedly referenced. Press materials state that chef Amador Mora's tasty Trece tortilla soup is a composition of 13 ingredients. His lobster mango margarita is shaken 13 times--ballsy, mixing tequila with the number 13.

Former Sfuzzi executive Robert Colombo and partners Billy Solomon and pro golfer Tommy Armour III have plastered over this address' former shabby chic with a trendy gloss. Decor is so hip and subtly frothy that press materials describe accents in terms of soft chocolate, espresso and latte. You'd think they were pushing caffeinated rushes instead of agave buzzes. (There is a thing called a Stodg-a-Rita with a splash of Red Bull, though). Skeleton figurines are tucked behind banquettes and in alcoves, ostensibly evocative of the Dia de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead") celebrations of the deceased that began in Aztec Mexico, though they might also serve as a warning against attempting 13 tequila shots.

Perhaps the most potent distillation of Trece ambiance is the glassed-in patio that juts out onto the Travis Street sidewalk. There you can watch a procession of German driving machines intermittently interrupted by fashionable British SUVs string out in front of the valet perch.

Out spill 20-somethings snapping flip-flops, the casually primped middle-aged women out for female bonding and the stray gray-haired executive with the girl in a slinky black cocktail dress and strappy heels who doesn't look a day over his shoe size.

This glass cage is great fun. It's a luxury skybox designed for the only game worthy of attentive play-by-play viewing: voyeurism. And if the game slips--not likely--there are always the tiny plasma screens above, where you can pick up a few hands of Texas hold 'em or maybe a linebacker profile.

Trece serves "high" Mexican cuisine. You can tease this out from the server banter: "From the menu I recommend the Alaskan halibut. Papita means pumpkin seeds. It's very good. I recommend that." The servers seem to start and end their suggestions with "I recommend," which must be some sort of subliminal messaging.

"May I suggest to bring the guacamole chef to prepare you fresh guacamole tableside?" It's rare that a restaurant trundles out a guacamole chef. Trece has three. Maybe it needs 10 more to keep pace with the 13 lobster mango margarita shakes. On a cart sits a bright orange bowl filled with dark green avocados. Once the cart and chef assume the guacamole deployment position, the chef removes this bowl, although this seems a ritual, as chopped avocado has already been prepped. The guac is customized with cilantro, serrano and habanero peppers, roasted onions, roasted tomatoes, lime and garlic. Notice this: the onions and the tomatoes are roasted instead of raw. Mora, a Mansion on Turtle Creek alum, says he prefers roasted or grilled to raw vegetables because the concentrated flavors are more compelling. The guac bears this out. It's a brooding lumpy stew with layers of brisk flavor threaded with smoke--perfect for the thick, timber-like house-made chips.

He uses grilled green tomatoes in his gazpacho, which is also lumpy from cucumber and crabmeat. Treated with yellow beads of corn milk over the green surface, the cool soup is thick and hearty, unraveling in layer upon layer of sweet and brisk flavors.

Mora also plays with fruits. "In Mexico, years ago, nobody cooked with fruits," he says. "It's always been chilis, always been onions and avocados...Nobody believes in sweet fruit with fish." Sure, they played with limes. But nobody teases fish with fruit like Mora does. Alaskan halibut is treated with a tangerine hoja santa sauce--a blend of tangerine juice, lime, serrano chili, lemongrass, shallots and cilantro brought to a quick boil. Mora soaks the fish in the sauce and then removes it, allowing the sauce to be absorbed by the fish flakes. Crusted in pumpkin seeds, the fish is remarkably moist with a clean slate of flavors overflowing with balance--mild acids playing off mild richness.

An odd example of Mora's resistance to raw vegetables shows up in his beef tenderloin. The thick tenderloin rests on a fried green tomato. There's a side bowl of smooth béarnaise sauce and a side of sopa seca--toasted pasta reanimated in a simmered chicken consommé with garlic, olive oil, onions and zucchini. Raw red and gold cherry tomatoes plus a sprig of thyme are added. The dish is delicious. The tenderloin is charred into crisp black coat which seals a rich, though not copiously juicy, fleshy rose. But that fried tomato makes the dish busy.

Trece ensalada Caesar is downright gaudy, a primped display of culinary baubles. Three bright red mojito shrimp are posted on a dab of bright yellow corn extract. Strips of marinated anchovy (the menu says they're toasted) are draped over milky romaine leaves across the top. Pebbles of white cheese and pieces of chili popcorn are strewn over the top. That's a lot of flavors to marry, and while they don't necessarily conflict, they don't effectively integrate either. Visually it's compelling. On the palate it's a bore.

Trece's bones are forged in tequila. It has a tequila lounge holding in excess of 120 different agave shockers displayed in two 6-foot cabinets accessible only via a specially engineered rolling ladder. It must be fun to watch a frenzied tequila harvest while firing off shots, which are easy to load, since Trece offers tequila flights. A selection of tequilas is on tap, hyper-cooled to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Tequila in the salty Chihuahua we ordered--tequila with lemonade in a glass with a lightly salted rim--must not have been the beneficiary of this process since the drink seemed barely below room temperature.

But the lobster mango margarita was adequately chilled. A blend of mango essence, tequila, cilantro, lime, wedges of avocado, jicama and generous chunks of succulent lobster with jalapeño crackers jutting out beyond the glass rim, this margarita is as gaudy as the Caesar salad, but far more compelling.

Just about everything is engaging at Trece. It doesn't always work with seamless harmony, but you'll find intriguing combinations and distinctive technical applications--many of which are brilliant--to keep you transfixed between tequila shots.

Example: Though the jicama in this margarita is raw, Mora grills or roasts it elsewhere. It sheds a subtle layer of sweetness when heated, he says, while still retaining its refreshing crunch and juiciness. He impales wedges of jicama into the delicious pollo a la parilla, a grilled skewer of chicken, bell pepper and red onion. At one end of the skewer is a curvaceous green tube tapered at the ends. Our waiter issues a stern warning: that green thing is a ferocious jalapeño. "But I mean if you want to have the fire we have enough margaritas to put it out. So don't worry about it."

No worries. 4513 Travis St., 214-780-1900. Open 3 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 3 p.m.-2 a.m. Thursday-Saturday. $$$-$$$

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