Let’s move beyond Tex-Mex: Dallas should be the U.S. capital of modern Mexican cuisine

Two summers ago, one of the most exciting things happening on the Dallas dining scene was the reawakening of a modern Mexican cooking movement. From the inventive chef-driven menu at the just-debuted El Bolero, to the new-wave tacos at Le Taco Cantina, to chef Randall Warder’s fresh take on Latin American crudos at C’Viche Tequila Bar, it looked and tasted as though the city was embracing modern Mexican enthusiastically and creatively.

The owners of Proof + Pantry were poised to open Madrina, an ambitious, chef-driven modern Mexican place. Regino Rojas, chef-owner of the groundbreaking Revolver Taco Lounge in Fort Worth, had just opened Campestre Chula Vista —  which felt like a gastronomic getaway to a Mexican hacienda.

I celebrated the delicious turn of events in an essay that we published as a special bilingual interactive story in conjunction with Al Día — complete with a timeline of modern Mexican cuisine’s history in North Texas, a glossary of cooking terms and more.

And then poof! Much of the air went out of the movement. One by one, the vibrant places I covered in the story closed, including Madrina — which went through several chefs before abruptly shutting down. El Bolero is the only one of that generation of restaurants that remains.

Octopus ceviche at Maximo Bistrot in Mexico City.Octopus ceviche at Maximo Bistrot in Mexico City.

(Leslie Brenner / Staff)

KERA reporter Gus Contreras recently asked me about the rise and fall of modern Mexican cooking in Dallas for his story, “Is there room for more than Tex-Mex and cheap tacos in North Texas?”

In it, Contreras raises an excellent question: Why is it that serious Mexican restaurants struggle to survive? It’s something I’ve long pondered myself. Is it that Dallasites don’t want to pay for it? Do diners have a hard time understanding that a seared duck taco in a handmade tortilla needs to be more expensive than a humble taco al pastor? Or that Mexican diver scallops and fresh huitlacoche might be pricier than the beef fajitas or cheese enchiladas on a Tex-Mex combo plate? Or is it just that, as I argued last year, the city’s Mexican cooking scene needs a new burst of creative energy?

At the moment, modern Mexican is one of the most exciting cuisines in the world. If you’ve dined in Mexico City in recent years, at restaurants like Contramar, Maximo Bistrot, Quintonil or Huset, you know how compelling, vibrant and dynamic it is. Enrique Olvera recently debuted a taco omakase bar at Pujol, his world-renowned restaurant known for its brilliant tasting menu.

Other Mexican cities, including Guadalajara (at the top of my must-visit-and-dine-there-soon list) are gaining reputations as amazing destinations for modern Mexican. And of course there’s Tulum, the Yucatan coastal town where Noma chef Rene Redzepi staged a quickly-sold-out $600-per-person pop-up this spring. For gastronomic travel this year, nothing beats Mexico.

All this presents a terrific opportunity for Dallas. Modern Mexican has taken off big time in New York, where Pujol’s Olvera has a restaurant (Cosme), and in Los Angeles. Houston has embraced modern Mexican brilliantly: A meal at Xochi, chef Hugo Ortega’s Oaxaca-inspired restaurant, was one of the most inspired I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing all year. (It just earned a rare four-star rave review from Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook; four stars is the Chronicle’s highest rating.)

Among American cities, Big D was a tortilla trend-setter in 2011, with an impressive number of restaurants making their own corn tortillas in-house, even grinding their own nixtamal. But we seem to have dropped that ball of masa. Standards have dropped at a number of restaurants where I’ve loved the modern Mexican fare in the past, such as Meso Maya, where more energy seems to be devoted to expansion (Taqueria la Ventana, Tortaco) than to pushing the culinary envelope.

I’m thrilled that Rojas has opened a Revolver Taco Lounge in Deep Ellum, with its tasting-menu private room in back; count on me to weigh in on it soon. And inventive taquerias have opened in the past year, including Jesus Carmona’s Tacos Mariachi and Michael Martensen’s Q Tacos project at Quesa.

Meanwhile, the spectacular cooking at Stephan Pyles Flora Street Cafe can be considered as modern Mexican as it is modern Texan. It’s wonderful to see one of the city’s most celebrated and influential chefs pushing in that direction, but I wish we were seeing more outstanding Mexican cooking, and from others. With such a vibrant Mexican-American community here, and such close ties between Dallas and Mexico, a fervent embrace of the flavors of Mexico would be natural.

Pujol’s Olvera reportedly plans to open a Cosme in Los Angeles next year; meanwhile, Mexico City chef Maycoll Calderón (Huset) is set to debut Tintorera, a modern Mexican place this month. There is plenty of culinary talent in Dallas capable of doing something thoughtful and interesting. Could there maybe be other Mexico City chefs up for opening here?

Sure, Tex-Mex is yummy. But how about now we move on, grow up and create something brilliant. Dallas should establish itself as the north-of-the-border capital of modern Mexican cuisine.

And yes, fellow diners — we will need to pay the tab.

CORRECTION, 10:00 a.m., June 26, 2017. An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Quintonil restaurant in Mexico City as Quintanilla.