It's hard opening a Mexican restaurant in a Tex-Mex town. Customers smell a whiff of cumin in the air and immediately expect frozen margaritas and free chips and salsa. Dallas has been serving up enchilada plates with refried beans for so long it's taken over an entire culinary identity, which can make it a little difficult to open anything to the contrary.
Some restaurants on the periphery of Mexican cooking take a stand upon opening. The owners say there will be no free chips and salsa, not because they are tight-fisted — not exclusively, anyway — but because they don't want the authenticity of their restaurant to be watered down by Tex-Mex expectations. They change their minds a few weeks later. A notice to Dallas restaurateurs: If your restaurant makes use of tortillas and cheese, there will be chips and salsa on the tables when your customers arrive. This is law.
So it was refreshing when the purported Mexican restaurant El Bolero opened its doors not just with chips and salsa as a greeting, but very good ones. On most nights I visited, the chips were crisp and warm, with a light sheen of oil indicating they had been freshly fried without crossing over into greasy. On one night, that paper-lined basket seemed to carry an electric charge. The chips sparked and snapped when you broke them and the multiple salsas — green, fresh red and a rusty dried-chili version — were just as good.
El Bolero, opened this spring by the Apheleia Restaurant Group (Oak, Pakpao), operates in a space similar to the Mi Cocina and Mesero restaurants that dot DFW. The menu leans toward regional Mexican cooking, but does so within a Tex-Mex context. There are steak fajitas, for instance, but they're hidden on the menu under carne a las brasas. Chicken fajitas are available, too, and there's even a combo. It comes with familiar roasted peppers, rice, beans and tortillas. The plates don't sizzle, which is a bummer, but the tortillas are freshly made. Still, they're not enough to prop up beef that is dry and tough.
A bolero is a shoeshine guy, in case you were wondering. The first of two clues to deciphering the restaurant's name is in the working shine-stand out front, where shoes are occasionally polished for tips on the weekends. The second is a series of lasts (the wood forms over which leather is stretched into shoes) lined up in ranks on the wall that leads to the bathrooms. Dallas' latest Design District restaurant is branded by the guy who spiffs up your loafers with wax and a horsehair brush.
Thankfully, the theme trails off quickly, and El Bolero unfolds into the kind of impressive dining room Apheleia has become known for. Gorgeous patterned tile covers the floors, while subway tile seamlessly flows into mosaics on a far wall. Tile frames the kitchen, which glows like it's under a heat lamp, and it frames the bar in green, where tufted leather barstools sprout like yellow buttercups. You'd think all those hard surfaces would lead to a noisy dining room, but the ceiling is a basket weave of sound-absorbing material that holds even the most raucous dining conversations at a comfortable level.
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Order a tart michelada from the bar and one of the excellent ceviches on the menu and you'll feel you've happened on a perfect summer spot. Don't miss the camaron aguachile, which delivers butterflied shrimp with their tails still attached, wading in a shallow pool of citrusy marinade. The shrimp are fresh, barely cooked in lime juice and accented with cilantro, tiny tomatoes and the unapologetic heat of slivered habanero. A red snapper ceviche was more substantial thanks to the addition of ripe avocado. It boasted a similar marinade and crunchy red peppers.
But other dishes fail to keep up, making El Bolero hard to fall for. A queso fundido with roasted vegetables arrived half-melted and quickly set up into an oily block of cheese. A small order of elotes with gummy corn elicited little joy for $7. Neither did $9 flautas with tough and oily shells. And while I loved a whole fried fish that came with pickled onions, fresh salsa and more of those tortillas for make-your-own tacos, the steak I had another night was cooked till it ate like one of El Bolero's shoes.
Still, the dining room is full most nights, with customers often spilling out onto the patio. They must be coming for the familiarity of the menu and the service that's almost too kind. I was asked several times about my plates after they arrived, and the drink glasses at my table never approached empty. Customers are coddled here, and for now, the service makes up for cooking that lacks personality. There's no chef, central identity or regionalism to anchor the experience, and because of that, El Bolero is just another Dallas Mexican restaurant.
To one side of the kitchen, a trompo spins with slices of pork stacked into a roast for pastor tacos. As it cooks, the meat spits grease and blackens at the edges, gaining color, texture and flavor. It makes for some excellent tacos, and if it were featured more prominently, might be enough to give the restaurant the identity it sorely lacks. Imagine a quirky restaurant in the Design District that focuses on street food, or the haute cuisine trend that's currently on fire in Mexico City. A place like that could get attention from a much broader audience in a city like Dallas. For now, El Bolero caters to customers who are satisfied when the food is warm and the valet is prompt. More adventurous eaters will find the restaurant needs a little more polish.