Dining with the dead: Figurines celebrating El Dia de los Muertos decorate Taqueria Canoñita.
Dining with the dead: Figurines celebrating El Dia de los Muertos decorate Taqueria Canoñita.
Stephen P. Karlisch

Taco Star

Taqueria Cañonita's publicity propaganda makes a lot of the fact that this superstar taqueria was hatched by Dallas star chef Stephan Pyles and his younger sister Alena. The blurbs tell how the pair developed the restaurant over the course of 10 or so years during many trips to Mexico, where they sampled "authentic" neighborhood taquerias and fingered a vast array of Mexican foods, from barbacoas to mescal worms, and selected the best for this taqueria.

The first Taqueria Cañonita was forged in Las Vegas in the billion-dollar-plus Venetian Resort, along with a Star Canyon offshoot. This was roughly a year after Carlson Restaurants Worldwide purchased the Stephan Pyles/Michael Cox creations Star Canyon and Aqua Knox and folded them into a division called Star Concepts. The Las Vegas version of the taqueria predated a Dallas-area version by one year, when one erupted in Plano this summer. Pyles' sister Alena vacated her slot as executive chef of the Las Vegas Taqueria Cañonita and took over the kitchen in the Plano version, a taqueria template that promises to be replicated across the country.

Then, shortly after the Plano taqueria opened, the defections began. First it was Cox, who asked Carlson to end their agreement early. Then Alena Pyles suddenly exited after commanding the Plano kitchen for just a short time. Next, Stephan Pyles himself left the firm, severing his ties with the Taqueria, AquaKnox, and Star Canyon, the eatery that launched him into toqueville glitterati.


Taqueria Ca

It's a little eerie to wander into Taqueria Cañonita and among the rustic coziness and the star cutouts in the backs of the wooden chairs and ponder these Dallas restaurant heroes willingly driven, one presumes, from their perches by a combination of bureaucratic frustrations and corporate sweeteners. The waiting area in the front is like a mountain-lodge den with cushy wood-framed couches and chairs. Opposite the bar is a zigzagging wall with seating. The angled wall surfaces are notched with little alcoves, into which are inserted little Day of the Dead relics, miniature skeletons engaging in various activities.

Friday and Saturday nights are brisk, and Taqueria Cañonita doesn't take reservations. So we were presented with one of those plastic boxes that vibrate and flash furiously when a table becomes available. We ordered drinks at the bar. On the menu, a quote from Stephan Pyles describes the flavors at Taqueria Cañonita as habit-forming. I don't know about the food, but the margaritas, allegedly composed with real lime juice, are dangerously so. They're smooth and tangy. They quench and soothe. Behind the bar is a long, curvaceous tiered tower stocked with premium tequilas and mescals. Also behind the bar are a couple of bartenders, casting about furiously. A waiter squeezed next to me at the edge of the bar, tapping his fingers on the bar surface. "How do you get service around here?" he said with a smirk. "Hey, immigration!" No one laughed, but a bartender snapped to attention and traded barbs (I'm assuming) in Spanish.

Despite the waiter's antics, service at the bar was good: quick, attentive, and anticipatory. This is in stark contrast to the table service. Once seated, we waited 15 minutes to place a drink order and receive a menu, and everything after that seemed to grind a little.

But it didn't grind at the bar. Chips and salsa were delivered with the drinks. The chips were adequate. But the salsa--a dark, thick, smoky substance that stuck to the chip corners like smooth putty--was possessed of a perfect balance of zip and heat.

Pyles calls this fare "Mexico City soul food," and these words are stenciled in yellow on the curving soffit above the bar. Yet the soul is not uniformly evident. The black bean and avocado tostada was unruly. Served chilled, the dish arrived with a crisp tortilla buried under an avalanche of greens pocked with tomato, cheese, avocado, tomatillo salsa, and a stingy pinch of black beans. This mound was drenched in a cumin-lime-cream substance that seared with a preponderance of citrus while it transformed the tortilla into a sodden, flaccid corn rag.

Chicken tortilla soup scored some soul, however. A clean, smooth slurry with cilantro and lime and a hefty cumin gust was discreetly topped with white cheese and crisp strips of tortilla. It proved rich and satisfying despite a scarcity of chicken.

Our server informed us that the ceviche recipe had just been altered. Whatever they did, it worked. Served in a martini glass, the fish and shrimp were carved into firm, juicy bite-size nuggets with diced red and yellow peppers, scallions, tomatoes, and shreds of lettuce all bathing in a puddle of brisk lime juice. Yum. Which is not a word that could easily be applied to the grilled mushroom empanadas, crispy wheat-flour turnovers that look like pot stickers with a beach bronzing. These empanadas were stuffed with marinated mushrooms--thankfully not chopped to smithereens--and cheese. They sweated a lush, earthy flavor. Striped with a dab of cream sauce, these turnovers were just a little pasty and dry.

If the flavors at Taqueria Cañonita prove truly to be habit-forming, they will be assisted in no small measure by the décor, arguably the most tasteful element in the place. It is nothing short of stunning. This venue is a controlled mess, with walls covered in a disjointed collage of tin-framed mirrors, candle sconces, and metal crosses: a whirl of rusticity. The dining room is assembled with thick wood furnishings and looks out onto an expansive waterside patio.

Pyles constructed the menu around "small plates," so that each of the categories, from tacos to tamales, can be sampled "as you would a sushi or tapas bar." But in addition to petite plates, there are also large plates harboring various combinations plus chicken, pork, seafood, and steak productions.

It wasn't crisp, but the dark chili herb-glazed skin on the oven-roasted half-chicken was exquisitely seasoned, though not enough to compensate for the rest of the bird. The interior was overcooked, dry, and chewy--so parched that it was difficult to finish without a liberal wash of margarita. A side of cilantro rice was astounding--moist but not mushy and flavored with lively herbs and lime. Clay-pot black beans embraced firm, supple elegance.

Fish tacos, slightly soggy corn tortillas filled with whitefish and a fruit salsa, harbored pieces of tender, moist fish that flaked when bitten. But a tortilla salad with roasted vegetables was ho-hum, slathered as it was in a jalapeño-lime vinaigrette that surged with overachieving lime flavors. The roasted vegetables, added for an extra buck and a half, proved anemic, posing more as a garnish than as a salad staple, with small specimens of onion, squash, and red and yellow peppers. The dish was topped with Mexican white cheese and a few tortilla strips.

Taqueria Cañonita is a simple fare-ground with a superb feel and excellent margaritas to help take in the view. The food isn't spot-on, and some of it is even flawed. It needs a little tweaking. The question is, How will this happen now that the Pyles are gone?


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