At least that's how it tastes sometimes, after some "hot" cuisine trend has been mainstreamed and sanded into milquetoast. It might not be fair to characterize Z'Tejas' cuisine as a vanilla blot on a ledger row, but that's what it feels like much of the time. The basics in this Southwest cuisine hamlet are nailed down while little creative flourishes flounder. Yet every dish still comes off as carefully calculated as the starched and buttoned-down décor, with just enough twists to give them a genuine air of invention.
Some twists percolate into view from the dish titles. Voo doo tuna sounds like some kind of island rumba with mango and fried plantains. Yet it's little more than a sideways collision with Asian, veering just enough into these influences to be annoying. Voo doo tuna is billed as a seared piece of ahi in black peppercorn vinaigrette and spicy soy mustard. But it arrives as a mass of confusion: a stringy tuna steak topped with a hefty pinch of ginger and caked in what tasted like chili powder singed black here and there with grill marks. The black peppercorn vinaigrette had a sweetish flavor that kind of rode roughshod over the wild rice pimpled with peas and carrots and the side of corn custard, which was delicate and delicious all on its own.
Another creation that hopelessly flaunts a faux edginess is as hard to understand as it is to eat. Oyster shooters, generally a bar bauble propelled into the gullet with jet fuel, arrive as a ring of tortilla chips surrounding a patch of shredded red cabbage in the center. On each chip rests a hefty deep-fried oyster striped with a bead of chipotle cream sauce. No, that's not exactly true. Three of the fat oysters rolled off their chips and came to rest in the cushion of cabbage. The ones that maintained their composure mostly collapsed in your hand before you could get the shriveled oyster past your lips. This is one clumsy appetizer, plus it was difficult to figure out what the thing was supposed to shoot.
What isn't hard to figure out is what the margaritas are supposed to shoot. A publication in Las Vegas tagged them the best margaritas in that city, and they are good. If you take the margarita and kick it up a few branches on the cocktail evolutionary tree, what you end up with is the "big stick," a tall cylindrical drink swirled with chambord and other bar twists that are too hard to remember after a big stick. This creation is as bitingly refreshing as it is smooth--much better than the dismal 'ritas blended at most places.
Z'Tejas was launched in Austin in 1989 by a half dozen chums--including Paul Fleming of Fleming's and P.F. Chang's fame--from Louisiana State University. Fleming later marshaled the adrenalin of Michael Archer as chief executive officer and partner to expand the concept. Archer cut his teeth at Morton's before he joined Lone Star Steak House and Saloon and unveiled Sullivan's and spiked the Del Frisco's nameplate with growth hormones.
Z'Tejas' founders allegedly wanted to fuse "the best" of Texas and Southwestern cuisine with...it's hard to tell. Maybe that's why they went by the vapid slogan "dining South by Southwest." Though in all fairness, a little italicized notation that most likely wasn't supposed to get past the proofreader of my Z'Tejas press kit notes that the company is changing that bit of marketing verbiage. But it's not clear if they're going to use "Austin doesn't have to work at being cool, and neither does Z'Tejas" or "Our food is robust but not spicy."
The tortilla soup was neither. It's just a smooth potage that works hard at being inoffensive. The Z green salad arrives on a small platter carpeted with greens and furnished with bell pepper slivers plus bright red and juicy Roma tomato slices. We had ours dressed in a lime vinaigrette that was a little heavy on the sweet side.
But you have to plumb deep into the heart of Southwestern or no-nonsense Mexican-influenced cuisines to find the Z'Tejas luster. Fish tacos with deliciously seared catfish were as tasty and fresh as they were supple. Four flour tortillas are wrapped around a bulging core of catfish, tortilla strips, avocado and a cucumber slaw. The tacos arrive with a ramekin of Asian dipping sauce that has a flavor reminiscent of the dressing drooled over salads in Japanese restaurants. If these little twists kept pace with other Z'Tejas mergings, they would have put you to sleep with their innocuous flavorings. Instead this was created with an eye fixed on delectation and balance.
Santa Fe chicken enchiladas, delivered New Mexico-style in flat layers instead of rolled, were tender and supple with a large expanse of the plate tarped with melted white jack cheese striped with red chile sauce. The chicken was moist and chewy, and the whole thing sweated a clean smoky flavor that wasn't overly burdened with cheese and sauce goo. A chunky puddle of firm yet tender black beans that were thoroughly cooked without being mushy accompanied the enchilada.
Every Dallas restaurant, no matter what its breed, must do steak. It's written somewhere as an unwritten rule, and I'm not talking about the chicken-fried kind (though there's a Z version of this, too). The New York strip was a thick piece of fat and gristle crowned with a shallow puddle of melted Gorgonzola butter. It was a shame the meat was so poor because the Gorgonzola butter treatment gave it a tangy edge that cut into the richness, hinting at a potentially interesting interplay. A side of fried mashed potatoes was dry and pointless.
Diablo pasta, green and red linguini in a chipotle garlic sauce, was loaded with pieces of juicy chicken. A pocket was riddled with crumbles of tangy white cheese, and the linguini strands were sown with slivers of bright green jalapeño--another robust dish that was beautifully balanced.
The iron skillet cobbler arrived sizzling and had dough that ranged from crispy to gooey. This skillet plunder was supposed to be a peach cobbler, but other than the sweet sizzling juices, we had trouble uncovering any fruit.
Service at Z'Tejas is perky jerky courtesy run amok, the kind that makes you wonder if you should tip 20 percent or use a flyswatter. One server seemed to stop by our table every five minutes to ask us if everything was OK. Another server referred to everything as his, as in, "I recommend my fish tacos," or, "That's my Asian dipping sauce." Very creepy.
Visually, Z'Tejas is a cavalcade of rich polished woods, rough-hewn planks and chandeliers with large stars hovering over the top of them. Colors--blue, burnt red and gold--repeat throughout the restaurant (wall sconces shimmer with cobalt blue and amber), and the posts and trim throughout the place are studded with rivets. Some 13 Z'Tejas grills have taken root in California, Washington, Maryland, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada in addition to Texas. More are on the way. That means more and more diners will need the help of a big stick to stay awake through Z'dessert.