If you visit Monica's Nueva Cocina, chances are you'll meet the famous Monica Greene. The 57-year-old restaurateur works the room like a pro, dropping in on every table to ask how things are and staying for some time if the customers are the slightest bit engaging. She's enthusiastic when discussing the history of culinary fusion in her native Mexico or talking about ingredient sourcing or her kitchen's careful techniques, but ask her about Tex-Mex, and her warm tone stiffens.
"I appreciate Tex-Mex for what it is," she dropped one evening in response to a question about fajitas, enchiladas and chili con carne enchiladas on the menu. From a business sense she must recognize the ubiquitous cuisine. Her customers expect frozen margaritas and chips and salsa on her tables, even as she's pushing her new menu into the relatively uncharted territory of Asian-Mexican fusion.
Greene's struggle to break away from the restaurants that have defined her — Monica's Aca Y Alla, now called Maracas Cocina Mexicana in Deep Ellum; Ciudad, which closed in 2007; and B.E.E, a casual enchilada restaurant in Oak Cliff, among others — has been hit and miss. A restaurant she opened in Addison in 2004 tried to push the boundaries of Mexican cooking but was met with dismay. Customers shunned creative dishes and asked when she would throw 50-cent margarita specials before she was forced to close.
Her latest restaurant, opened this summer in the Ilume shopping plaza in Oak Lawn, is perhaps her biggest push against her customer's expectations. Greene cites China Poblano, a Las Vegas restaurant opened by Washington, D.C.-based power chef Jose Andres, as part of her inspiration. Amidst the glamour and glitz of Vegas' bright lights and international crowd, a dichotomous menu of tacos and dim sum almost sounds normal. In Dallas, however, as it's currently executed, it comes off a little clunky.
The lounge side of the restaurant is framed by a long, dimly lit sushi bar where customers can watch cooks bind crab meat, tuna, shrimp and fried crunchy bits in rice and seaweed before they're drizzled with as many as four different sauces.
If you were a fan of Sushi Axiom, which used to occupy the space, you'll feel right at home with any of these rolls. But when the unfiltered sake you've ordered is poured into a large wine glass meant for chardonnay, and then a basket of chips and salsa lands on your table, you may start to question your dining decision. Try sipping a little of the cloudy, sweet rice wine after tasting the chili salsa, and it will be instantly apparent that not all flavors were meant to be fused.
Greene might lack enthusiasm when discussing Tex-Mex, but that's not apparent in her cooking. The chili con carne enchiladas are a perfect rendition of the dish that defines Texas' native cuisine. Most restaurants plate oily, greasy, orange-colored slop poured onto lard-laden tortillas filled with gloopy cheese. The enchiladas here are assembled with light, fresh rounds made right in the kitchen from freshly ground corn. They're topped with a meat sauce made from coarsely ground beef that's processed on site, and the cheese melts nicely and is applied with restraint. You won't feel bloated if you clean your plate, and you will, right down to the rice and spicy bowl of soupy whole pinto beans.
The other Tex-Mex trademark, chips and salsa, is stellar here. The chips are thin, crisp and warm like summer, and roasted chiles get blended down into a piquant puree that varies like the weather — one day dark and dusky with deep and smoky chilies, the next bright and sunny, with crisp tomato flavors breaking through the clouds.
A Mexican lasagna, borrowed and updated from the original restaurant, layers tortillas with chicken and cheese and smothers the stacked enchiladas with two bright, acidic tomato sauces.
Tacos are decent and sometimes outstanding. Suadero is braised and shredded and topped with onions cooked down till they're sweet. Chicken tacos come lightly flavored with adobo and are garnished with supremed citrus, while lengua remains traditional with onions, cilantro, radishes and salsa.
A chicken soup is outstanding, even if it's not based on a true consomme as the menu suggests. The broth is nice, even if it's cloudy, and studded with tender roast chicken and soft chickpeas. Two slices of avocado act as a garnish before they melt away in your mouth, finishing an outstanding bowl of sustenance that could cure any malady.
When the same chickpeas make it into a braised lamb dish they feel out of place among the soft and sweet cipollini onions and baby carrots shaped like tiny turnips. Two chunks of lamb breast are terribly fatty and difficult to enjoy when compared with the flavorful sirloin slices that join the plate. With many dishes, the further Monica's restaurant strays from her Mexican heritage, the less satisfying the food becomes.
A lomo saltado seasons tender chunks of beef with soy sauce before it's sauteed in a fiery hot wok. Fingerling potatoes and rice join the saucy plate that's topped with an egg and presented with instructions. "Break the yolk and mix it all together to enhance the fusion," my waiter says, but the yolk is cooked almost solid.
A chicken mole is so much better, boasting well-cooked meat and an earthy, rich sauce with hints of chocolate, dried chiles and other dark and sinister flavors. With a glass of tequila and a seat on the energetic patio, the noise of Cedar Springs Road fades away into your own personal Mexican daydream. (An almond mole the color of a carnation, served under duck with rubbery skin, will bring you right back to Texas.)
The dessert menu will make you wish fall would stay away just a little longer. The cuatro leches cake shows restraint in sweetness, but the ice creams, served on a fried disk of masa dusted with sugar and cinnamon, are a real pleasure.
During one visit I ordered both the sweet corn and caramel versions and was bummed when two brown softballs of frozen dairy arrived. I might have asked my waiter to correct the problem but the table had already pounced, devouring the cold ice cream with crunchy shards of sopapilla. I came back for the sweet corn ice cream, though, and was rewarded with soft and understated summery flavors.
When asked why she would change the name of Monica's Aca y Alla, which she still partially owns, and run the risk of confusing her Deep Ellum customers, Greene simply responds, "There can be only one Monica's." The restaurant was a concept that she intended to evolve, and after spending more than 20 years serving families and neighborhood locals her creative take on Mexican flavors, she was ready to make a new push to expand her culinary horizons in a new location.
While the menu has some quirks that need to be refined, the service is generally good at her new restaurant, which brings a style of dining desperately needed in the Oak Lawn neighborhood, and the locals look happy — even that couple sharing sushi rolls with chopsticks and lime-green margaritas.