Most Americans see Mexican cuisine through queso-colored glasses, content to crack open a box of store-bought hard-shell tortillas, stuff them with something fatty and vaguely chili-flavored and call the result "Mexican." In Texas, though, some are beginning to understand that Mexican food is more than gelatinous cheese sauces and leaden combo platters. We gaze beyond our southern border at a complex food and cultural landscape that has created a glorious culinary tradition—an epicure's El Dorado. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization agrees. Last year, UNESCO declared Mexican cuisine an "intangible heritage of humanity," an honor Mexico shares with France. Still, boeuf bourguignonne has nothing on mole.
It wasn't until childhood trips to northern Mexico and later afternoons spent in Brooklyn restaurants serving southern Mexican food that I realized the full scope of comida Mexicana. I'm a native Puerto Rican, but I will pass over a plate of lechón and arroz con gandules for—once again—some mole.
That's why I was excited when news came that Abraham Salum, chef-owner of Salum and a native Mexican, was set to open a restaurant that pays homage to the regional food of his homeland, bringing Dallas modern renditions of the greatest food in the world. The intention certainly was good: take the food of Salum's childhood beyond its modest origins and elevate it with touches of fine dining. It begins with the restaurant's name, Komali, which is derived from the Nahuatl comali, source of the Spanish word comal, a plain, flat griddle used predominantly to cook feather-light tortillas. The restaurant's modern look gives the place a chic sheen, anchored by a whitewashed palette with dark accents, wicker-lined walls, banquettes lining the south wall and an artisan-made fireplace.
Unfortunately, Salum's new venture disappointed with bumbling service and a string of underwhelming dishes.
A humble dish that should breathe new life into the Dallas restaurant scene is the vuelve a la vida, a seafood cocktail with a name that translates to "return to life." The sliced avocado garnish gave it a creamy counterpoint, but the pieces of fish, shrimp, oysters and octopus were chopped too finely, the octopus especially. It was the size of miniature gumballs with no presence beyond a chewy texture.
The service didn't fare much better. During a packed dinner, the table next to ours received a birthday cake, white candles sizzling. The waitress, however, neglected to bring forks and plates along with the dessert. During lunch at Komali, fewer than 10 tables were occupied, all but one filled with elderly customers who could have been mistaken for passengers on a tour bus. It was discomfiting, then, that as I sat at the bar waiting for my lunch companion to arrive, it took 10 minutes to order the signature cocktail, the Komali, a blend of Tres Generaciones Reposado, prickly pear puree, Cointreau, mango and lime juice. Moreover, the gentleman who took my order needed the slow assistance of another employee. When I received my drink, the napkin beneath bore the printed logo of Salum, the chef's namesake restaurant.
The servers seem to be ignorant to what the chef wants pushed, much less what goes into each dish. "Everything" is an inappropriate answer to any diner's questions. The only time staff expertise was exhibited during my visits was when my wife stopped herself short from ordering the filete tampiqueña (thin tenderloin, grilled and plated with refried black beans, an enchilada de mole, some grilled onions and a basket of small handmade tortillas), the lone entrée resembling the familiar combination platter prevalent in Tex-Mex establishments. The waiter then gushed over the filete de res almendrado. The almendrado sauce, an almond-based mole, was luscious and pungent. Atop the beef rested a fried tortilla-encrusted ball of goat cheese, creamy and tangy. The steak was a delectable tenderloin with a touch of pink in the center. All the elements—steak, cheese and sauce—played well together. The happy combination was tempered only by the adequate potato and squash sides.
The chicken mole entrée was uneven. The mole negro was a stellar example of the most popular of Mexico's legendary sauces. Earthy and rich, the smooth texture morphed into a light heat that ricocheted at the back of the throat where notes of myriad ingredients, among them chocolate and chilies, left a mark. It was a pleasure to see and taste such a fine sauce. The bone-in breast under the mole, on the other hand, was more dried out with each bite.
The chile relleno de jaiba, a crabmeat-stuffed poblano pepper resting on salsa roja and accompanied with cilantro rice, was another letdown. It was memorable only because I had jotted it down in a notepad after dinner.
The absence of a lunch menu further deepens the disappointment at Komali. Twenty-five dollars for beef tenderloin is a bargain for a fine-dining offering. For a midday meal, it's befuddling. Smaller portions at lower price points would entice the young adults who overrun restaurants in nearby Uptown and Knox-Henderson. (At least they would if the service were better.) A simple lunch of one appetizer and two entrées lasted two hours. Adding the appetite-whetting antojitos Mexicanos, "little Mexican snacks," and a dessert of dense chocoflan, a traditional (and contentious) marriage of vanilla custard and chocolate cake, would have extended the meal into pink-slip territory. The pair were some of the bookends of a later dinner. The appetizer was composed of bland chorizo sopes, greasy, underseasoned flautas and unremarkable pork. The goat-milk cajeta draped over the dessert was cloying, though not as powerful as the queso de cabra with piloncillo sauce ordered for lunch.
Not all was lost. Two other dishes, also bookends, were encouraging. The first, the crema de poblano, a chest-warming corn chowder swimming with tortilla strips, gave off a mild and welcomed heat. The other was the crispy churros dessert, given a sprinkle of sugar and served with a cup of hot chocolate for dipping. I watched as it transported my wife, who is of Mexican heritage, back in time to when she drank Abuelita Mexican hot cocoa.
At Komali, a web of selections representative of central Mexico and the states of Oaxaca, Veracruz and Yucatan becomes a sticky knot. If the restaurant is a sign of Mexican food's state in Dallas, let's hope it is a brief stumble.