By all accounts, Anthony Alvarez should have been completely satisfied with his restaurant business. He and partner Hal Dantzler opened up Hattie's in the Bishop Arts District nearly 12 years ago, and it is credited with helping to change the neighborhood. The surrounding blocks were only on the cusp of gentrification when the Lowcountry restaurant first opened, but the smell of shrimp and grits was enough to pull customers across the Trinity River from the bubble. Everyone else followed, and now the Bishop Arts District is one of Dallas' more vibrant neighborhoods. The streets and sidewalks are filled with diners and shoppers more often than not.
But the pecan-crusted catfish, crabcakes and fried green tomatoes spoke more to Dantzler's South Carolina upbringing. Hattie's celebrated Southern cooking, but Alvarez was from farther south. He grew up in Key West and his family was from Cuba. His grandmother hosted massive lunches for family and friends, and Alvarez remembers coming home from school to eat lunch with the men of the neighborhood. There were fried plantains and simmering pork, pan-seared steak and roast chicken. There were always beans and rice. "My grandmother was the best Cuban cook at the time," Alvarez says. "That was all I ate growing up for 22 years." Except on Sundays.
After two seatings five days of the week, his grandmother had enough of the kitchen, so his father, a barber and a firefighter, often brought home a sack filled with Cuban sandwiches. Wrapped in butcher paper and stuffed with roast pork, ham, pickles, mustard and plenty of melted Swiss cheese, the sandwiches were a weekly ritual. And now Alvarez hopes to relive the scents and flavors of his youth with his new restaurant devoted to casual Cuban food.
¡C. Señor! (¡C. Señor!, 330 W. Davis St.), opened recently in the old El Padrino space, also in the Bishop Arts District. For years, the takeout stand offered breakfast burritos in the morning and tacos and tortas late into the night. When El Padrino moved a few blocks south to Jefferson Boulevard where development has been progressing more slowly, Alvarez and his partners jumped on the space. It was the perfect spot to sell Cuban sandwiches, tacos and other casual eats, and it happened to be just around the corner from Hattie's.
The old bones of El Padrino remain — the tall rectangle adorned with a façade of bubble letters that spell out fish, shrimp and other ingredients juts out of the cement parking lot — but the look is freshened up with a crown of neon that hypnotizes every driver who passes up and down West Davis Street. It calls out in glorious red, white and blue neon like a movie marquee, hawking sandwiches to anyone with eyes.
The ¡C. Señor! should be the star, according to the bill, and the riff on ropa vieja will certainly attract some fans with braised, shredded short rib tucked inside a roll with sautéed onions and Swiss cheese. It's pressed and lightly toasted just long enough for that cheese to glue everything together, and it's good, but it's no Cuban sandwich, which upstages every other sandwich on the board by a long shot if for one reason: It's got a real zing.
The mustard and pickles wake up your palate and let your taste buds know something special is happening. Alvarez says he wasn't able to recreate his grandmother's mojo (a flavorful marinade) because it's too hard to dependably find sour oranges and other key ingredients, but with some help from Esteban Galindo, the executive chef at Hattie's, he was able to come up with something that conjured the flavors he grew up with. Galindo's mojo is used to marinate pork shoulders, which are roasted until they're fall-apart tender. The shredded meat is then stacked on bread baked at a local bakery using Alvarez's recipe and then layered with ham, pickles, Swiss cheese and mustard.
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As every Texan who has ever ordered a burger will understand, the greatness of this sandwich is in the mustard. It's not just the yellow hue that adds brightness. It's the bold snap of vinegar in the neon condiment that gives the sandwich some punch. Backed up by the occasional bite of pickle, the acid makes the other sandwiches at ¡C. Señor! seem comparatively dull.
Speaking of burgers, you'll want to try this one. The patty is a blend of beef and flavorful chorizo that bears an almost blackened crust from the grill. It's topped with melted pepper jack cheese and a tangle of crispy fried potatoes like matchsticks. There's no mustard, but that's OK. Even the spiced ketchup here has zing.
Whatever sandwich you order, don't skip on the yucca fries, which were perfect on two of three occasions. One evening an order placed just before closing produced limp fries that had sat under the warming light too long, but the rest of the orders were light, crisp and lightly dusted with chile for some heat. Dipping those fat batons into more of that spicy ketchup, you can rip through that tiny paper bag in an instant. They'll set off the percussive rhythm of the congas somewhere in the recesses of your mind.
Great food can transport you somewhere, and while an authentic daiquiri or perhaps a mojito would certainly help the food at ¡C. Señor! get your wheels off the tarmac, having an amazing Cuban sandwich while you sit at one of the outdoor tables in the sunshine will certainly shift your mood at the very least. And for Alvarez, whose trips to his family's kitchens back in Florida often filled him with nostalgia, this little takeout in Oak Cliff provides a quick ticket home.