There we were, sipping drinks on a lush patio behind some sketchy 7-Eleven when a sudden, sharp spurt of maniacal laughter interrupted our spell.
Just another Saturday night in the 'hood, except in this case, the setting was a well-worn patch of far North Dallas and the commotion began when a woman stepped nose-first into the glass separating the dining room of Carolina's Mexican Cuisine from its patio. The laughter? Well, her concerned husband couldn't keep from keeling over. In fact, shortly thereafter, he scooted from table to table, prodding the few guests enjoying the relatively cool late summer eve: "Didja see that? Right into the door."
I'm not going to impugn the nature of suburban coupling. And the fact that the bruised woman and her mocking husband happen, by some bizarre coincidence, to be neighbors of my guest that evening has nothing to do with it.
Carolina's Mexican Cuisine
Carolina�s Mexican Cuisine Sopesitos $6.95 Stuffed jalape�os $12.95 Ceviche $6.95 Tacos al pastor $12.95 Pollo en mole $12.95 Camarones de la casa $12.95
Let's just assume she was distracted by the sight of an outdoor oasis in the middle of an iffy neighborhood. For despite its perch on a dim stretch of parkway carved into near oblivion by the Bush Turnpike and saddled with a questionable reputation after storm refugees years ago took up sanctuary in nearby apartments, the restaurant hardly seems like part of the projects. Instead, it feels a little lost, out of the way even though major roadways crisscross nearby.
Although cautious owner Carolina Galvan speaks of security and access to valet parking during our phone conversation, I've been to the place three times, left the top down on my convertible while I dined inside and never gave location more than a "wonder why" thought. Cars blur past on the way to somewhere else, and there's a surprisingly steady shuffle of foot traffic between housing and the small shopping center, that's all. Yet one of the points emphasized by Galvan is the old location adage.
"Normally I wouldn't go to a place over there," she admits—using 'there' because she was driving on the tollway as we spoke. "I took a chance."
Maybe she's right. Being out of any direct line of sight is generally considered an impediment to success. The creperie anchoring the other end of this drab strip, Normandie, shut down earlier in the summer (as did that corner's two previous occupants). But Carolina's space—the outdoor part, anyway—is truly striking. Its patio backs against a man-made pond bordered by trees, so the impression from your seat is one of slowly moving water rather than concrete banks and underwater lighting. A pergola provides shade, and two slatted walls break up the space into semi-secluded areas. When Galvan, the ex-wife of infamous restaurateur Mico Rodriguez, walked out its back door for the first time, she was sold.
"There's not many big patios like that in Dallas," she tells me, recalling the impulse that caused her to ignore obvious downsides. "I looked at that space and saw potential."
Hey, some people can see inner beauty. But it's almost as if Galvan is on a mission to show up her ex—and if so, she's off to a good start. Whereas Mi Cocina, the chain founded by Mico and his partners, serves a thin and rusty one-note mole, Carolina's ladles an alluvial sauce, coffee dark and forceful in flavor. The thick reduction is like a cauldron of emotion: oozing resentment, calming momentarily, then showing moments of grit and earthiness, sentiment and spice, all swirling around the repressed rage of dried chile. All in all, 34 ingredients make up this intense mole—"a family recipe," which Galvan won't divulge.
When it comes to ceviche, however, the restaurant takes a more hands-off approach. Rather than drown fish in lime and jalapeño, the kitchen staff is content to tease pieces of shrimp and whitefish with citrus just until the flesh tightens, rewarding guests with sour, acidic bites through which—and this is the surprising bit—come hints of natural flavor. That's right, you can taste the fish. After sampling so many overmarinated, overpriced examples elsewhere, such a nuanced approach is refreshing.
This is the work of chef Tirzo Martinez, a Mi Cocina veteran with almost 20 years of experience. Flexing a bit now that he's free from corporate oversight, Martinez's cooking shows more personality than you find at the chain—though he sometimes pays for it with a loss of consistency. Sopesitos, for instance, vaguely resemble something slapped together by a hungover frat boy desperate for something to quell his gurgling stomach. Shrimp wrapped in bacon (camarones de la casa), on the other hand, marries run-of-the-mill shellfish to run-of-the-mill bacon so stealthily the two elements blend together. As a result, every bite drifts easily—naturally—from tart and smoky to sweet and musty. Paired with diabla sauce the color of shoe polish and studded with seeds promising (and delivering) a piquant torch, the dish becomes the culinary equivalent of a Harlequin novel.
Um...or so I've been told.
Simple plot, protagonists from different cultures, a brief fling in some fiery Mexican resort—yeah, sounds about right. Galvan is more than happy with the chef's performance thus far. "Chefs are temperamental," she says of Martinez, "but I love him. He's awesome."
It's good to hear this kind of excitement from the long-suffering restaurateur. Her stormy relationship with her ex-husband has been publicly detailed—most recently in a D magazine cover story that soft-pedaled his oft-wandering, hard-drinking behaviors that led to their break up, but still managed to send Galvan's emotions into a spiral. Earlier this year, Mico was dismissed from M Crowd, the restaurant group he helped create, and he went into a self-imposed seclusion. Galvan spent much of her married life running Mi Cocina from behind the scenes, or so she says. Since the divorce, she has stepped into the spotlight, opening two restaurants—her second is in Plano—and planning several more.
Perhaps because M Crowd has a cozy longevity, some people dismissed Carolina's from the outset as a kind of rogue spin-off. Some of it sounds like spite, or a "we don't need another Mi Cocina" condescension. But the now spirited Galvan is in earnest.
"I don't see it as direct competition with Mi Cocina," she explains. "There's a lot of competition out there, but I know my food is on [the mark]."
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Certainly that's true of the pollo en mole, the ceviche and her house camarones. Tacos al pastor fall into the "just fine" category. Stuffed jalapeños are contained in a beautiful, crispy shell but gush far too much cream cheese.
Oh, well—little inconsistencies. Chain restaurants succeed by smoothing out the creases. But their flat landscapes are also somewhat dull, which is why you never hear anyone talk about their glorious Indiana holiday.
Carolina's, on the other hand, has personality, inside and (more particularly) out.
Carolinas Mexican Cuisine 3950 Rosemeade Parkway, 972-306-2276. Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m. $$