In the annals of branding it doesn't exactly sing out, but this is the line that Hector's on Henderson flaunts. "It's a great place for date night," owner Hector Garcia says in a KDAF-TV Up All Night segment. He repeats it. So do his minions.
Like ingesting fish oil, "date night" sounds like an obligatory palliative—a contrived episode of ardor after routine and familiarity have bludgeoned romance. Somehow flaunting that you fill this bill kills whatever tingles might have been reanimated. Somehow. Nothing against date night but...
Shoehorned between the Hibiscus and Victor Tango's in what was once Alfredo's Italian cuisine, this gable-roofed totem is the prototypical neighborhood respite in a city short on authentic neighborhood vibe. That it has survived the cauldron of Knox-Henderson fickleness—to say nothing of the Great Recession—speaks volumes, though from which compendium it's hard to tell.
Hector's is a blank slate, a parched tongue of grey minimalism thirsting for color. The remedies are scant. Brash portraits—features exaggerated and placidly skewed—by artist Matt Sunderman line the upper starboard wall. Circa-1927 chandeliers, crafted for Neiman Marcus by legendary metal artisan Henry Potter, hang in the dining room. Coursing through that same vein, Hector's breadbaskets, wine bucket stands and host platform are all custom crafted by metal artisans.
In the vestibule a voluptuous young woman in a classic dress and simple pumps fluffs her hair before a mirror. She is Hector's pianist-vocalist Betsy Stelzer. She begins haltingly, fearing a clash with appetizers perhaps. Her voice slowly seeps into the room. She loosely hits a pitch and bends away from it in exhausted weaves—as if she had spent the afternoon sobbing herself into a drought. You'll never hear a more oddly soulful rendition of Led Zeppelin's "D'yer Mak'er."
At this point, one might track with the date-night thingy. But then the menu hits the stage. Hector's Favorite Salad is adequately composed, a simple conglomerate of racy greens topped with shreds of aged cheddar and diced avocado sluiced with herb vinaigrette. And it's hard to gin up a more fecund teaser than lobster caviar deviled eggs: lobster richness, caviar exotica and pedestrian egg-yolk comfort. Yet for all of its egg-on-egg bluster, it leaves you cold. Five eggs, fluffs of yolk, tiny clods of lumpfish roe, a blizzard of chive. Lobster meat blended into the yolk lends a light, dancing sweetness, but the yolk is monochrome if not tedious.
The glass of Saint Gregory pinot noir was musty and oxidized, what with being poured from a bottle opened three to four days before, our servers told us. So we requested a pour from a fresh bottle to pair with the cornmeal-crusted Idaho rainbow trout with avocado pico de gallo and sautéed green beans in lemon beurre blanc. Only it wasn't to be. Our server returned after 15 minutes to tell us the fish delivery didn't make it that day. Aren't these the kinds of things usually covered in pre-dinner service staff meetings?
Stunt doubling for the trout was Not My Mama's Meatloaf, a classic holdover from Hector's opening chef Todd Erickson. A cook who was as brilliant as he was aimless, Erickson left Hector's only to suffer a disastrous stint at Tryst, a restaurant cum nightclub that opened near Southside on Lamar above Gilley's in early 2006. Erickson played up the name by structuring dinner into distinct stages, dividing appetizers, salad, entrees and desserts into a string of seductive moves: first date, second date, third date and kiss goodnight.
Though Tryst flopped amongst an orgy of poor execution and mismanagement, it possessed the creative energy Hector's seems to lack. Erickson—now a personal chef/restaurant consultant in Miami-Fort Lauderdale—structured his loaf out of ground veal, pork and beef wrapped in thick sheets of applewood-smoked bacon. It was moist and bursting with gut-sticking homey flavor.
This holdover version—little changed from Erickson's original recipe—is a vertical wedge smeared in "sweet-hot" tomato glaze with five "lacquered" baby carrots butted up against the base. An artless lump of runny, cold, white truffle-whipped potatoes nests nearby. The meat is dry and stiff. The tomato glaze is cold. No kiss tonight.
Yet Garcia has the verve to revive this shopworn date-night parlor. Born in Cuba, Garcia hit U.S. shores in 1962 at the age of 6 speaking no English. He moved to Dallas from New Jersey in 1979 to study acting at Southern Methodist University and eventually landed work in radio, theater and television. He supplemented his acting gigs with a job at the defunct Riviera, arguably the première white-tablecloth venue in Dallas for more than a decade. Garcia was The Riviera's general manager from 2000 until it closed in 2003. He debuted Hector's on Henderson in 2004, just after his brief partnership with Suze founder Suzie Priore in the brilliant—if undercapitalized—Iris. Iris folded April Fool's weekend 2007.
Hector's grinds on, swelling with unrequited promise. Sometimes Garcia sings in the dining room.
Oddly, the entry holding the most allure is Hector's Stack, an artery-clogging layer-cake with a thick sirloin steak, grilled sourdough bread and jalapeño hash browns all topped with a fried egg. A pool of screaming yellow cayenne hollandaise swamps it all. The steak is sinewy and listless. The rest wasn't zesty enough to compensate.
The deepest disappointment is the grilled Atlantic salmon: a strip of fish—grill marks in perfect X's—arched over a bed of garlicky spinach, saffron orange sauce seeping onto the plate, a twist of lemon on top. The fish is gripped by an odd textural confluence of waxiness and spongy mushiness. It's stricken with stale flavors, perhaps on account of the butter in the sauce being rancid.
While a side order of white cheddar risotto is stiff and soulless, the lamb chop lollipops in Texas chimichurri sauce and topped with pickled onions were spectacular: tender, succulent and exceptionally well seasoned in their predominant garlic and olive oil dress.
Hector's opened six years ago, rampant with life. Today the rivets are popping out and there isn't a roll of duct tape in sight. It's a superbly relaxing space for sipping wine and absorbing musical vibe. But if Hector's truly yearns to be a signature date night space, it will have to arouse the menu. And oil up the execution.Hectors On Henderson 2929 N. Henderson Ave., 214-821-0432. hectorsonhenderson.com. Open for dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. $$-$$$