Last week, Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner published an article on the state of Mexican dining in Dallas. It’s a worthwhile read and, in part, I agree with it. After all, the basic thesis is: “Wouldn’t it be cool if Dallas were a leader in modern Mexican fine dining?” Yes, that would be super cool.
But “wouldn’t it be cool?” is not a sound thesis. For one thing, becoming an international hotspot for fancy Mexican food is complicated. Brenner raises the issue that New York and Los Angeles already have that reputation, so we would need to compete with them. Even in Texas, the “modern Mexican” fine dining scene is ruled by brilliant Houston chef Hugo Ortega and San Antonio’s Mixtli, with its $97 set tasting menus highlighting different Mexican regions.
And then there’s, you know, actual Mexico.
More concerning is that in our restaurant bubble, the climate is risky for Dallas to suddenly pivot from its current fine dining scene to a whole new one. Real estate costs are through the roof. Restaurants with ambitious plans are increasingly attaching themselves to hotels or even luxury department stores to help raise capital.
“I don’t want to be the guy with 10 restaurants when the bubble bursts,” chef John Tesar told the Observer for Beth Rankin’s 2016 restaurant bubble cover story. Not coincidentally, he had just left El Bolero, one of the restaurants Brenner cites as a modern Mexican example.
We also face a staffing shortage. Nancy Nichols wrote about that recently after members of the food media received one of the weirdest press releases we’ve gotten yet: Lark on the Park announced that it can’t find anybody to run its kitchen.
Brenner doesn’t mention these issues at all and instead hopes that maybe some chef from Mexico City will open shop in Dallas, just because.
But there’s another problem in Brenner’s assessment: her attempt to declare the State of Dallas Mexican Dining. Obviously, her focus is on upscale restaurants, not take-out counters or elote carts. But she still has blinders on.
Get this: Leslie Brenner wrote 841 words about Mexican food in Dallas without mentioning Oak Cliff. Here's an idea: If you want to try Mexican cooking, go to an area where Mexican people live, and go to a restaurant where Mexican people eat.
The basic fallacy of Brenner’s article is that there’s a dichotomy between “humble tacos” (her words) and “modern,” “creative” Mexican food (her words again). Lurking unspoken behind that sentiment is the dangerous view, one I assume Brenner would repudiate, that humble Mexican food isn’t creative, inventive or modern unless some chef (probably white — Brenner cites Randall Warder, Michael Martensen and Stephan Pyles) makes Mexico fit into the old, Anglo-French culinary order and serves the result in a neighborhood where cosseted foodies feel safe valeting their BMWs.
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That false notion of “humble” and “modern” implies a native cuisine which never evolved or innovated until it heard the gospel of French culinary-school technique. But, believe it or not, Mexican cooking was plenty inventive and creative before international critics started recommending that it conform to Anglo-European fine-dining expectations, or suggesting that such conformity would by definition be “modern.”
Understood that way, without preconceptions, Dallas is already a leader in brilliant Mexican cooking.
So, Leslie, here’s a tip: Next time you “wish we were seeing more outstanding Mexican cooking,” cross the Trinity River. Try Limon’s, which specializes in excellent Veracruzan food, picaditas and cochinita pibil; sample Tacos Sarandeados Juanito, the Nayarit embassy in Cockrell Hill; explore chef-driven flavors of Matehuala at Taquero; refresh your memory on the acclaimed cooking at Mesa; get a taste of the Rio Grande Valley at Taquería Laredo; swing by El Pueblo or El Ranchito and remember how satisfying Tex-Mex can be; get your fingers messy with the ultimate Mexican street food, tacos al vapor, at Taco Rico; devour the extraordinary huitlacoche and tlayudas at Mi Lindo Oaxaca. Then, on your way back across the Trinity, swing by El Palote Panadería to discover modern vegan-Mex innovation.
Then and only then will you be able to issue declarations on the state of Mexican food in Dallas. Oh, and next time, don’t call tacos “humble” or tell Tex-Mex fans to “grow up.” It’s a bad look.