Restaurant Reviews

Mexican Swim

The most significant challenge in restaurateuring has little to do with fortunes big or small, lost or stolen. That comes later, maybe after décor. Café San Miguel has a deep blue marine bar with a porthole housing a metal star. Christmas lights are strung from the ceiling. The barstools look like drums--a setting for an Iron John men's movement thumping session, which is fitting for a place that's flowing with tequila.

No, the biggest restaurateuring challenge is personnel and partners. Assembling "the team" is like herding tabbies. Partners come, kitchens get fractious, lieutenants are ousted, floor infantry deserts before dinner battle, partners go.

Café San Miguel founder Ron Guest launched his Mexican restaurant with chef Fernando Marrufo (Café Pacific) in the kitchen and Jesus Carmona (Stars in San Francisco, Star Canyon, Avanti and La Duni) in the manager/partner slot. Carmona was gone before the restaurant opened. Marrufo vacated shortly afterward. Now the place is managed by partner Hugo Galvan, who is also the chef. Guest is mostly not around as he is a designer clavicle-deep in restaurant décor development. Funny thing about the restaurant business is that all of this promiscuous positioning and partner shifting doesn't result in a sizable litter of bastard offspring, like it might in the NBA or in the back sands of Malibu. It just keeps the same whelp fed, albeit by a swinging variety of guardians. Perhaps this keeps the gene pool in full creative roil. It seems to work here.

"It's our top seller," says a server, egging us on to the made-to-order guacamole. It goes well with the chips, he adds. Most people who come to San Miguel ravish the complimentary tortilla chips, the staff of life in Mexican restaurants, but the guacamole isn't necessary. The salsas--a rich stewed-tomato brew and a delicious avocado, jalapeño, onion and cilantro froth--are more than adequate. Shove a chip in the guac anyway. It's bright green, chunky, nutty and fresh. This is stellar stuff with white onion, lime, cilantro and roasted garlic stirred into a bumpy slurry. You can feel the citrus concussion from your cheek membranes all the way down to your hangnails.

"You can use the chips for the ceviche or for the guacamole," he says, ticking off benefits. The add-on selling never stops.

More chips are deployed. But while they're a hand-in-glove fit for the guac, they're a distraction when dressed in ceviche. Good ceviche should be handled with a fork or, better, a spoon so that all of the hissing lime and fish mixture can be slurped along with chunks of milky flesh. It rests in a martini glass, which has become a ceviche service cliché. Someone should try serving the stuff in a gravy boat. More marine, that.

And this isn't authentic. Instead of blistering the fish--on this visit, tilapia--in a long slow lime-juice bath, it's steamed before the soak. In Mexico, "they leave it rest in lime juice for long periods of time," our server explains. "But we cannot do that here, because it's going to tear your taste. Too much acidity." Tear your taste. The violent sensuality of citrus has never been so elegantly elucidated, has it?

Two slivers of avocado mount the mound pebbled with diced tomato, onion and cilantro. A fanned tomato slice is wedged between the mound and the martini glass wall. On a subsequent visit, shrimp was added to the tilapia mix. It's exhilaratingly terse, with firm fish, searing lime spray and piercing pepper stabs to stave a citrus onslaught.

As is expected in a Mexican restaurant, fish makes appearances in a variety of culinary garb. There is the whole fried snapper, but Guest promised this would be booted off the menu on account of the trouble he had securing quality fish. We didn't find this to be true. The fish is fried into a stiff swooping curl, its sunken jaundiced eyes staring blankly in a directionless leer. It's coiled almost completely into a circle, its lips nearly grazing its tail, the body conforming to the curvature of the dish. The body is drizzled with cilantro and red pepper oil--beauty coaxed from the dead. Tucked in the crook is a spinach salad with tomato, carrot, cilantro, cheese and jicama. The fish is sweet, tender and crisp on the outside while the inner reaches are marvelously moist. No mush. Salad is drizzled in well-seasoned citrus. Despite Guest's promise, the fish was still snapper on a return jaunt. Reasonable alternatives must have been hard to find.

Heading the San Miguel menu is a klatch of custom cocktails: pomerita (frozen pomegranate margarita); paloma (tequila with grapefruit and lime juices); Vampiro (tequila and tomato juice); Mexipolitan (tequila, Cointreau, white cranberry and lime juices); and a thing called "Don Ron." There's the typical beer lineup too, plus wines from South America and Spain among other locales. The alcohol complexion revels in adequacy with the frilly cocktail fringe offering a stylish boa.

Café San Miguel food absorbs cues from the central Mexican metropolis of San Miguel de Allende. There is some Tex-Mex muck tossed in too, and it's perhaps the weakest real estate on the menu. Beef tacos are patches of grilled beef slipped into a somewhat supple but greasy soft tortilla with threads of cheese tethering the beef. A dab of Mexican rice is uneventful; a ramekin of refried beans fiddles with listlessness. Empanadas Mexicanas are three griddle-singed corn turnovers stuffed with spicy ground beef, chorizo and cheese. The plate is puddled in pepper sauce, which made the base of the turnovers soggy and slightly gelatinous. Still, the innards retained their dignity.

As does the décor. Guest makes grand use of pedestrian materials. Light fixtures are formed from pressed paper. Tabletops are covered with pressed paper too, as is the menu. Colors are warm and earthy, yet vivid. Guest calls these splashes "a modern interpretation on Mexican colonial--reminiscent of a Mexican hacienda." Detailing, such as light fixtures and those paper sheathes, are handmade and imported from San Miguel de Allende, locking in the pedigree.

Other things are straight from Texas. Grilled Texas quail is slathered with thick queso fresco. The bird tosses a slightly livery flavor at the mid-palate, and the meat is tough. Plus the sauce treatment didn't perceptibly complement the ensemble; maybe it's too Texas.

But a fish special consisting of pan-fried trout blanketed in an avocado-tomatillo-butter sauce is compelling. The seasoning is subtle yet effective while the meat is moist and flakes under modest pressure. Then there's the grilled Angus flat-iron steak saddled to a chile relleno. The chile relleno was a bit dismal, soggy as it was near the base from the sluice flow of tomatillo sauce.

No matter. The firm strips of flat-iron flesh are rosy, rich and juicy. Which just goes to show ya: Everything in Dallas can be reduced, sifted and boiled down to tasty steer flanks. And at Café San Miguel, the journey to the meat through the piscatorial detours is compelling. 1907 N. Henderson Ave., 214-370-9815. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Open for dinner 6 p.m.-midnight Tuesday-Saturday. $$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz