Emanuel Salinas and John Broady wanted to open their own restaurant. but adopted one instead. We look inside their culinary romance
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES
The décor has remained the same. That Aztec-looking stone face carved into a chair at the entrance. The mosaic tiles over the fireplace hearth — not a feature left burning in the heat of Dallas summer, but a comforting image nonetheless. The bar area buzzes at banks off high-top tables. Even LeAnn Berry, North Texas’ reigning mixologist (especially when it comes to tequila drinks), is still behind the bar, enchanting diners with her cocktails.
Nope, you wouldn’t know it by walking into Komali that anything has changed. But subtly it has. And that’s how John Broady and Emanuel Salinas like it.
Neither Broady nor Salinas had a background as restaurant owners, or even as professional chefs, but for several years, they yearned to open their own eatery. They looked at spaces but didn’t fall in love with any of them… and they wanted to fall in love. Then someone asked if they would consider taking over an all-ready existing restaurant.
“We hadn’t really thought about it before,” Broady recalls. But they were open to it. Their first stop: Komali.
They had never even been into Komali as guests before that, which now seems remarkable. Komali had been a popular staple in the Uptown community since 2011. Opened as a sister restaurant to Salum — the eponymous restaurant of chef-owner Abraham Salum — Komali focused on contemporary, authentic Mexican cuisine… definitely not Tex-Mex.
That suited Salinas, who was born in Mexico City and grew up in Acapulco, learning to cook from his mother. He knew Mexican food, not the hybrid popular north of the border. Broady, originally from Dallas, had moved to San Francisco 20 years ago during the tech boom, and spent a year living in rural Zacatecas, Mexico, where he learned Spanish and developed an appreciation for the cuisine and culture.
They were gobsmacked from the get-go. They felt an immediate connection with Abraham Salum (who told me the reaction was mutual). A taste of chef Geovanny Arredondo cooking convinced them that the kitchen was in more than capable hands.
They had, in fact, fallen in love.
“Everything was so handmade — they grind the corn for their tortillas,” Broady says with amazement. “We knew in five minutes we were going to do the deal.”
It all happened quickly. They did a few dry runs, with Salinas shadowing Chef Salum for several weeks, seeing how the bar and kitchen worked so that “when we took over, we were ready,” he says. “We got the keys on a Monday and we were open on Tuesday.”
That was back in December. Since then, they’ve had months to change it up. But much of what impressed them on their initial visit has proven to be the essential backbone of what sets Komali apart. Salinas and Broady are definitely of the school of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They went item-by-item over the menu, deciding what to ditch and what needed to be different. When Broady learns that I have never tried one of the long-standing dishes — the chile en nogada, a poblano pepper stuffed with such succulent items as golden raisins, pomegranates, nutmeg and beef tenderloin — his reaction seems born of disappointment, as if my life had not been properly lived without access to this miracle of culinary accomplishment.
So I ordered it. He may have had a point.
New brooms sweep clean, the adage goes. But that wasn’t the case at for Salinas and Broady.
“When we first got the restaurant we came really close to adding a section for Tex-Mex,” Broady says. But they decided the authenticity is what set Komali apart.
It’s harder to come by in Dallas than you might expect. Monica Greene’s long-closed Ciudad was one of the pioneers of modern Mexican cooking; “Chef Geo” trained with Greene for 11 years before working under Tre Wilcox (Marquee), Omar Flores (Driftwood), DJ Quintanilla (Resto) and finally ending up at Komali two years ago, rising to executive chef recently. Working with Salinas, he’s maintained many of the fan favorites of the menu (the aforementioned chile en nogada, the addictive queso fundito with chorizo that beckons you like a refreshing pool of pillowy cheese, the habanero margarita), but also tweaked and improved upon some, changing the presentation or outright adding new items.
Chef Geo is humble about his efforts. When he offers that he “added some enchiladas,” Broady brags on his behalf.
“We challenged Geo to rethink the cheese enchiladas,” Broady says, “but he said ‘I can elevate this.’ And he came back with the queso con carne enchiladas” — blue-corn tortillas wrapped around Oaxaca and Chihuahua cheeses, then topped with flank steak and a creamy ranchero.
“He makes [our menu] unique,” Salinas says. “The flavors come from the very beginning, from the making the tortillas to the way we prepare the shrimp. It all tells you something about the [dish]. The menu was already similar to what I wanted to showcase. It was like having a surrogate kid: Geo delivered the toddler and it was my job to teach it to run.”
Once change they did implement: A rotating monthly “menu within a menu,” concentrating on a different flavor profile drawn from Salinas and Broady’s experiences in Mexico.
“I went to Puebla, and came back with some ideas, so we created a menu,” Salinas says. “Now we’ve done one from Oaxaca, Jalisco — wherever we want to focus.” Each menu has produced its stars.
“I brought my parents one night and they are not very adventurous [eaters], but my dad really wanted to try to birria. I explained what is was to him, and he loved it. And my mom loved the street tacos,” Broady says. “It was so exciting to me because none of them would have tried that without this menu.”
Making a family
Broady isn’t the only one who celebrates the cuisine with his family. One night I was in, Salinas’ parents, a sister and more of his extended family were all visiting, happily chowing down. Bar manager LeAnn Berry’s family was in the same night, surprising her from out of town. But everyone is meant to feel at home.
There have been some adjustments. The couple admits that it took a few months to work out both living and working together.
“We had to find our areas of expertise,” Salinas says. “I used to work in a hotel so I’m very used to that customer experience. So I handle that and the scheduling, the staffing, the tasting. John loves the technology and the ‘big picture’ stuff.”
Attrition among the staff has been minimal and the regulars. But of course they want to expand the family to entice more diners to sample the menu that they have nurtured … and which speaks to the culture they both love. That probably means updating the menu in the fall with more seasonal ingredients (cranberry tacos in November, anyone?). But until then, they just want to enjoy the romance.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 19, 2016.