Monica Greene’s one-two punch of Oak Lawn’s Nueva Cocina and Mi Lounge is a knockout
Consider the humble tortilla chip: A simple patty of corn masa, sliced and deep fried — a food not so much in itself, but as a medium for delivering other foods: cheese, sour cream, salsa, guacamole.
There’s not much to a tortilla chip, and yet it can be such a tremendously vital (or enervating) accompaniment to a Tex-Mex meal. Too thin or thick, too greasy or dry, too big or small … We all have our complaints. Like pizza crust, there isn’t a right or wrong, merely a like it or don’t.
I can’t imagine many restaurants put much time into designing their chips — certainly the majority are serviceable, like sporks are to silver flatwear. But on several visits to Monica Greene’s new two-venue destination in the ilume — the casual Mi Lounge and the slightly more formal Monica’s Nueva Cocina — the kitchen seems to have elevated it. The chips are brilliant paradoxes: crunchy and chewy, as if I’d ever thought that possible. They’re big, sturdy chips that manage to be elegant as well. (At least they were on two visits; two other times, they were good, though not as special.)
Better yet, though, is how they pair with the salsa. The salsa here is neither spicy nor mild, but some magical middle ground of richness. The ingredients — tomatoes, onions, a few more familiar additions — taste as fresh as a sailor on leave, hand crushed and not heated to maintain their intense vegetal character. Fluid but also chunky, it scoops heartily without withering the chip.
If it sounds a bit romanticized, well, that’s to be expected. This is Monica back in the gayborhood, which she moved out of five years ago when she shuttered Ciudad. The menu here — part Monica, part her exec chef, Hector Hernandez — combines new ideas (she’s enthusiastic about vegetarian dishes!) with some old friends (Greene pasta and Mexican lasagna have been transplanted from her now-also-closed Deep Ellum eatery, Aca y Alla). But there’s no denying the skill goes beyond wishful thinking.
The set-up takes some getting used to: One entrance for both restos, but separate menus (though apparently the same menu at lunch): One buzzy and social, with Mexican wrestling masks providing décor and a working sushi bar serving up quick bites; the other floridly colored in reds, oranges and browns — also abuzz at every seating we’ve attended, though not noisy. You can go between both comfortably, though: Both boast Monica’s trademark playfulness. (Use the men’s room urinal, and a photo of Monica standing above, looking down and laughing, makes relieving yourself a unique experience.)
Much of the food is accessible Tex-Mex: A platter of three tacos ($12; $3 per at lunch) is available in four proteins; ask nice, and they might mix and match for ya. The style is street-simple but sophisticated, stuffed full but not laden with fuss. There’s a sprightly, fresh flavor on the pastor; it’s clean and uncomplicated, moist without being soupy. The brisket suadero juicy and rich, sweetened with grilled onion. For non-meat eaters looking for a dish both packed with complexity and outside the ordinary, the vegetarian taco here will surely become a favorite. At lunch, try a torta like the albondigas (Latin-style meatballs, served as a sandwich $10) with house-made chips.
But much of the menu bends toward more formal Mexican fine-dining style. The enchiladas ($12 at dinner) are stacked, with greens and even pickled cauliflower atop to separate it from the standard Tex-Mex style. Although the flavors are balanced, the toppings overwhelm the enchiladas below. That’s not the case with the poc chuc ($19) — Monica’s name for a pork chop. Cut thick with a deep border of fat adding flavor, the seasoning is smoky and peppered — not spicy, but spiced.
The pato en Amarillo demonstrates the (perhaps unexpected) sophistication of true Mexican cuisine: Medium duck breast, sliced on the bias with rich ribbons of fat crowning each medallion, are doused in what looks like a bloody au jus. But no — it’s a pink mole, colored with red beets. The beets don’t impart more than a sweetness to the mole that accents the dance of chocolate and beautiful duck. Al dente haricot verts and a sweet potato mash lend further polish.
The ceviches have been a standout on each visit, from the bright flavors of mango adding a summery lightness to the el playero ($10) to the shrimp cocktail-like heartiness of the vuelve de la vida ($12), which is spicy hot.
The Mexican fried ice cream is a clever conception, with a caramel drizzle atop a corn-flavored vanilla gelato, itself perched on a sugar sopaipilla wafer. My dining companion sniffed at the very idea of dessert at first, but he was unable to resist eating half of it.
Service is still working itself out, as the kitchen seems overwhelmed by the reception. Still, the staff is friendly and agreeable and move like jackrabbits through the dining room, dashing from table to table. Even Monica might clear your plate and come say hi.
It’s that kind of place — a neighborhood bistro with a Latin flare where everyone will eventually wind up.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 14, 2012.