2016 has been a year of change at Komali. In March, founding chef-owner Abraham Salum sold the Cole Avenue restaurant to John Broady and Emanuel Salinas, relative newcomers to the Dallas restaurant business. Salinas, born in Mexico City and raised in Acapulco, wanted to recalibrate the kitchen to focus on regional Mexican cuisine and worked on a menu overhaul with head chef Geovanny Arredondo, another Mexico City native.
The only things that haven't really changed at Komali, these days, are the stylish interior and the extraordinary margaritas. And there’s even better news: The changes are improvements, with room for continued growth. A lot of good food is on offer at the new Komali.
But, really, any meal here needs to start with the margaritas. Bar manager Leann Berry has become a local legend, and creations like the Caliente Clementine ($14), its habanero infusion balanced with tangerine and Cointreau, justify the hype. The house margarita ($12) is, despite the name, not cheap lip-puckering swill but an exceptional drink featuring a reposado tequila made especially for the restaurant by Herradura.
As for the food, some of it is regional Mexican food plated with finesse, some of it is a vehicle for chef Arredondo’s creativity and some of it is, alas, still pretty ordinary. The good news first: Komali is nailing some Mexican standards, like ceviche ($14), delicate-flavored and humming with gentle acidity, topped with thin slices of avocado and red onion. Sopes, corn masa discs topped with beans and well-seasoned chicken, make for a filling appetizer ($8).
Serving tacos de canasta ($8) at a swanky Uptown restaurant is a stroke of subversion: the ultimate street food item, these steamed tacos fall apart easily and are coated in a vivid orange guajillo chili oil. How many fine dining experiences in Dallas will leave socialites with gleaming orange fingers?
The pork belly tacos ($12) are justifiably among the restaurant’s signature items, with great sweet-spicy and soft-crunchy balance and mole spices mixed into the soft, earthy corn tortillas. An appetizer serving of three small Oaxacan-style banana leaf tamales ($10) features one great tamale, with shredded pork, and two fairly humdrum tamales which are elevated by a thick, focused, gently sweet mole dipping sauce.
Komali makes two moles from scratch; the other is the more familiar Oaxacan mole negro, which can be found gracing a tender half-chicken ($18). This is good stuff, rather spartanly served with rice and a basket containing just two lonely tortillas.
Another minimalist main course is more memorable: birria ($20), the rich stew from Jalisco. Made with lamb, Komali’s birria is a huge portion, its fork-tender meat and ultra-flavorful broth the products of long, slow cooking. Tortillas, onions and cilantro are the only sides it has, or needs.
From Veracruz comes the seafood tumbada ($24), a sort of Mexican cousin to paella. Rice and a jumble of shrimp and shellfish, none of them overcooked, rest in a well-spiced broth of seafood stock, garlic, tomatoes and more. And the Yucatán is represented by cochinita pibil and arroz verde ($20), where ultra-tender pork is stewed with orange and a choir of spices that sings at just the right, subtle volume. Again, though, a basket of two tortillas is just not enough.
Chile en nogada ($20) is another national Mexican dish that’s hard to find in Dallas; indeed, it’s such a bit of patriotism that it’s served with cilantro, white cheese and pomegranate seeds forming a Mexican flag garnish. The inside of this poblano pepper is a festival of every kind of flavor: crunch from pecans, cream from the sauce, tender beef tenderloin and ample spice. It’s one of those magic-trick dishes that defies culinary laws of physics, and Komali does an outstanding job of it.
Everyone serves chile relleno; not everyone serves chile en nogada. Komali has recognized that, but they’re not quite free of cliches. They serve good enchiladas, with duck meat as the filling and beans on the side ($22). Still, ordering enchiladas, steak or the pork chop feels like missing an opportunity.
Desserts, all $8, aren’t always reliable. The chocoflan is good value for what amounts to a giant slab of dense chocolate cake with an equally big slab of flan on top. The churros are an acquired taste, however. Rather than being ultra-crisp and feather-light, with a soft, airy inside, they’re dense and almost crunchy. A waiter explained that the kitchen doesn’t like deep-frying things, so perhaps cooking technique accounts for the heftier style.
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The Observer’s first review of Komali, in 2011, was especially critical of the restaurant’s service. A simple two-course lunch back then took two hours. But, despite occasional over-eagerness, the service is now, arguably, the best part of the whole experience. On one visit, waiters stayed conscientious about checking in on the patio’s only occupied table, refilling those excellent margaritas with habit-enabling promptness.
And, above all, the staff is damn charming. A waiter asked, “So are you guys big mole fans? We have two different mole sauces, and you should compare them to see the difference,” and then brought free sample cups.
Service like that creates a lot of goodwill, and the drinks encourage good times, too. These elements explain why Komali feels like more than the sum of its parts. Although the transition to stylish regional Mexican feels not quite finished, the overall experience is consistently satisfying. Komali is in the midst of a delicious revival.
Komali, 4152 Cole Ave., www.komalirestaurant.com. Open 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m Tuesday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m Friday and Saturday and 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.