When that hollow voice from my GPS instructed a turn onto Menefee Avenue and announced the final destination was a mere 1,000 feet away, I assumed I’d made a wrong turn. A thrift store, a vacuum cleaner repair shop and a collision center were all within sight, and the road was starting to narrow. I had three hungry friends in my car who had listened to me gush about the wonders of some new Mexican restaurant, but as far as they could tell we were in the back alley of a strip mall. Maybe there’s more than one Menefee Avenue in Fort Worth?
Farther up the road I heard those familiar words, “You have arrived at your destination,” but they did little to soothe me. The restaurant was nowhere to be seen — just a brick and iron entranceway that looked like it belonged to a mansion. Even when I pulled into the parking lot, I assumed we were lost.
Campestre Chula Vista, the new restaurant by the family responsible for Revolver Taco, is located in what looks like a giant cartoon castle at the top of a hill. Painted in hot pink with electric blue accents, it looks like it could be home to the Care Bears — or like I was taking my friends on a surprise mini-golf adventure. But the unnerving locale and facade are part of the charm. This is a restaurant that must be sought out. As I got closer, the anxiety I’d felt about potentially duping my friends was replaced by excitement. A faint, pulsing bass line grew louder as we walked up to the door framing the patio, and as we turned the corner, the Rojas family’s latest creation revealed itself like a summer vacation — one you can experience in just a few hours.
The two massive patios provide what may be the most scenic dining in Fort Worth. The hills open up to reveal the sunset to the west, fountains sparkle and gurgle, and the tables are so generously spaced you might as well be dining alone. After a round of cucumber margaritas, our cubicles faded into distant, hopefully unrecoverable memories.
Meals start with a small bowl of refried beans studded with corn and thick, crunchy tortillas strips that protrude from the dish like haphazard dreadlocks. The salt and crunch is enough to keep a diner occupied, but it’s the rest of the starters, or botanas, as they’re referred to on the menu, that deserve the closest attention.
Bacon is so loved it has infiltrated nearly every culinary creation known to man, stripping the ingredient of (almost) all its excitement. Why don’t we embrace chicharrón more instead? The strips of fried pork skin mixed with crushed avocado recall smoky pork but have a pleasantly chewy texture that’s infinitely more interesting. If you’re bored by Tex-Mex guacamole with the texture of toothpaste, this version will rekindle your enthusiasm.
A ceviche lands on the table more gently, with red snapper cooked in lime juice, summer-worthy tomatoes and sweet orange slices. A requested basket of crunchy tortilla chips for shoveling makes quick and delicious work of the plate.
And don’t miss the queso fundido, if only because it comes with a side of freshly made tortillas, which are really the very best reason for coming here. They arrive in a small plastic tortilla warmer, just like every other rubbery tortilla you’ve ever been served, but as soon as you grab one all similarities vanish. Pillow soft, light and fluffy, these tortillas are a pleasure to eat on their own, and stuffed with a spoonful of molten cheese they border on revelatory. These are the tortillas that years ago brought fame to Revolver Taco, where they were made into tacos, served with braised goat and stuffed with anything else that even remotely benefits from the soft embrace of warm masa. If you see a dish with tortillas in the description, order it.
It’s because of those tortillas (did I mention the tortillas?) that Campestre is particularly suited for dining in groups. Don’t miss the roasted young goat that arrives soaking in a sauce the color of rich mahogany on a plate with rice and beans. A small bowl of chickpeas floating in a complex and oily broth is served on the side. Grab a steaming hot tortilla, fill it with enough meat to roll a fat cigar and dunk it in the consommé before every bite.
There’s a stewed pork shoulder, too. It’s simmered in a sauce that was once green with tomatillos but is now a rich brown color and wholly delicious. Use the cigar technique with this plate as well, dredging your stuffed tortilla through more of the sauce on the plate. Or feel free to tear off pieces of tortilla and use them like shovels. Both methods work great.
There’s roast duck with rich, slightly sweet mole and steak rubbed with spice before it’s seared on the grill. All of these dishes are perfect for sharing, making use of tortillas instead of dirtying small plates.
It’s pretty obvious as soon as you park your car, but Campestre Chula Vista is more than a restaurant. The address is a storied one, and the story changes depending on which employee you ask. I was told that Campestre was a Prohibition-era mansion, complete with tunnels for a speedy escape should the law arrive to bust up a party. It was also a Moose lodge for some time, before it was an extended banquet hall for weddings, quinceañeras and other celebrations. A restaurant called Picosos made an attempt here but failed.
One late afternoon while business was slow, a waitress offered my group a tour. We saw two dining rooms filled with festive plates and napkins tied up like firecrackers, and two dimly lit and creepy banquet rooms, one of which could easily hold 1,000 people. Then we were led down into the bowels of the building, to what the staff refers to as “the dungeon.” Next visit I expect to hear ghost stories told tableside.
But for now you can compile your own happy food memories on one of the two patios. With its grand scale and remote location, Campestre Chula Vista is literally set apart from other restaurants. Add a solid menu of family recipes and handcrafted dishes and you’ve got a restaurant that’s worth a visit no matter how hard it is to find.
If only they had a few hammocks around the grounds, and a staff to shuttle drinks back and forth. I wouldn’t have to worry about finding the place the next time because I’d never leave.
Campestre Chula Vista
1950 Menefee Ave., Fort Worth, 817-740-7899, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Sunday, closed Monday-Thursday, $$$