Mirror, mirror

Posted on 11 Sep 2007 at 6:02pm
By Arnold Wayne Jones Staff Writer

Mockingbird Station’s Urban Taco extends the Mexican taqueria tradition



The pork al pastor tacos at Urban Taco are delightful fresh and tasty.

Nothing succeeds like success, although whether that’s a good or bad thing rarely enters into the discussion. (Just the thought of “Transformers 2″ makes my teeth ache.) Occasionally, though, it’s obvious when the scales tip toward good.

Case in point: The West Village and its doppelganger, Mockingbird Station. Just a few years ago, Central Dallas didn’t have any trendy urban-living arts centers to speak of; now there are these two and, if you want to count it, Victory Park.

But the achievement of each has become the repetitiveness of both. They tend to mirror one another: Upscale condos and apartments? Check. Flashy fashion boutiques? Check. Art-house cinemas? Happily, check.

Chalk up a new similarity: the Mexico City-style taqueria. To the West Village’s Taco Diner (of all Uptown-area neighborhood eateries, the one I frequent the most) add Mockingbird’s Urban Taco.

Anyone weaned exclusively on Middle America’s version of the taco that travesty composed of a crisp shell filled with seasoned ground beef, shredded lettuce and shaved Velveeta, squirted with bland salsa has missed out on one of the terrific culinary contributions from south of the border. And now that Monica Greene has closed her fabulous Ciudad, there are fewer ways to explore it.

But explore you should. The traditional Mexican taco is a truly wondrous thing. The wrapping is a coaster-sized masa tortilla (more elegant than the hard Bueno/Bell bent Frisbees); the contents are fresh and varied proteins, like barbecue, pork, goat or fish; the garnishes are unusual stuff, such as cilantro, manchego cheese, finely-chopped onions, lime. When I first visited a Taco Inn in Mexico City 15 years ago, I wondered why no smart American entrepreneur had exploited the concept.

Then came Taco Diner, as close as any mainstream restaurant had ever come. It had (and has) specialties like bistec and tilapia. It wasn’t Tex-Mex; it was Mex-Mex. Now Urban Taco mimics the same style, albeit with its own slant.

So is there room for more than one?

You’re kidding right? I wish there were 100 restaurants that served this kind of cuisine.

But while the idea deserves to multiply, Urban Taco first has to work out some of its kinks.

Food isn’t the problem. Right now, it’s the service and atmosphere that demand attention.

Diners order at the counter and dishes are brought to their tables when ready; sounds simple. But on one recent visit, my dining companion and I ordered three tacos apiece, which were delivered on two plates: Four on one, two on another. We were assured everything we ordered was there; and we were encouraged simply to swap out which belonged to whom.

Isn’t it the kitchen’s job to plate the food?

The d?cor is appealing, but the hardwood floors and metal-footed benches make a bad combination: Our seats slid around every time we stood up or sat down too enthusiastically. The color scheme is pleasant enough, but just a few weeks after opening it seems slightly dingy, and the music often Tejano-tinged versions of American pop songs grew tiresome.

But then there are the tacos.

Put “taco” in the name of your upscale eatery, and you raise diner expectations (here they run $2.50 to $3.50 apiece hardly drive-thru fast-food prices). Generically-seasoned ground beef and pulverized chicken parts won’t cut it; neither will shredded iceberg and a spoonful of sour cream.

The chef, Fernando Huerta, who worked at Stephan Pyles, knows that.
Ingredients were fresh and inventively combined (although taquerias in Mexico usually give the customer more individual garnish options). There were hardly any we didn’t enthusiastically wolf down. The al pastor (seasoned pork with pineapple) and arranchero al carbon were especially delightful.

The chicken tinga wasn’t bad, but we wouldn’t go out of our way to order it again at least in taco form. But the tinga empanadas were crisp with bits of potato, as well as the spicy chicken and drizzled with avocado crema (used here with the regularity that hamburger joints slather ketchup). A side of salsa roja was an excellent accompaniment.

When it comes to evaluating tortilla soup anywhere, there’s really only one question worth asking: Is it nearly as good as Neiman Marcus’ or the Mansion’s? So don’t come down too hard on Urban Taco for not exceeding expectations it’s good enough in its own right, spicy with a touch of pesole, though it needs a little more hominy to really stand out.

The chips a kind of gourmet Fritos were lime-flavored and addictively seasoned, and available with eight salsas to choose from: Avocado-lime crema (again), charred corn picante (a nice taste, but the tomatoes where not cut up well, leaving only a few scoops’ worth), black bean and corn (good, but without a kick).

Of the sides, the poblano rice with cheese seemed greasy but the roasted corn was spot-on delicious. The tropical salad contained plenty of fresh fruits and lettuce, but the flavors lacked balance: The tart grapefruit drowned out the less ardent tastes of the mango, and we couldn’t detect any of the passion fruit vinaigrette dancing on the leaves. (The pequito version is also misnamed: it’s entree-sized.)

In a conversation shortly after announcing that Ciudad would close, Monica Greene challenged me: Don’t give short-shrift to authentic Mexican food, she said. Expect more, but when you get it, acknowledge it and champion it and defend it to all who will listen.

Urban Taco isn’t at the level of fine dining Greene established, but it does move us further down the road toward recognizing the discrete cuisine of Mexico without the Texas influence.

REPORT CARD

Urban Taco, 5301 E. Mockingbird Lane. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (8 p.m. Sunday).
214-823-4723.
Overall: Two and a half stars
Food: Three stars
Atmosphere: Two and a half stars
Service: Two stars
Price: Inexpensive to moderate.



TASTING NOTES

Ciudad’s last day was Aug. 26, but owner Monica Greene is far from done.
Her restaurant Aca y Alla, which has thrived in Deep Ellum as others have come and gone, remains open. But don’t expect to see Monica there much for a while she said she plans to spend much of the next few months in Aspen.

Did Casey Thompson say more than she should have? At the recent Caesar Salad Competition where her recipe came in second to Janice Provost’s from Parigi the Shinsei executive chef admitted that she was excited about the “Top Chef” finale, on which she is a contestant. She did not know the outcome, which has not yet been decided. Could her excitement stem from being in the final group of potential winners?


Brian Luscher, who cut his teeth as executive chef at The Grape from 2001 to 2004, is back this time as owner. The deal to purchase the restaurant from the current owners should be finalized by October, which is also the 35th year for the Lower Greenville institution. To commemorate the anniversary, The Grape will offer a three-course, $35 tasting menu throughout the month of October.

For the fall, Uptown’s Hotel St. Germain will feature a special dining series highlighting various regional French cuisine. The seven courses cost $85 and reservations are required.

The James Beard Foundation the culinary center established by the late gay gourmet brings its first-ever national food festival to Dallas. Taste America will celebrate the organization’s 20th anniversary with local and national chefs showing their skills.

On Sept. 28, Nana and chef Anthony Bombaci will host a benefit with Dunia Borga and Julia Lopez (La Duni and Alo), Kent Rathbun (Abacus), and Patrick O’Connell (chef at The Inn at Little Washington, often called the best restaurant in America) participating. Tickets are $225. On Sept. 29, Brian Olenjack and O’Connell will put on a cooking demonstration at Williams-Sonoma in North Park Mall. Visit JBFtasteamerica.com for more information.

Avner Samuel will host a cooking class at Aurora on Sept. 22 at 10 a.m., focusing on birds and game. Then in October and November, he’ll feature truffles. To register, call 214-528-9400.

A.W.J.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 14, 2007

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