Ciudaddio

Abraham Salum re-introduced contemporary Mexican cuisine to Dallas with Komali

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MODERN MEX | Komali chef-owner Abraham Salum takes a sophisticated approach to Mexican cooking. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Most Texans know, or think they know, what Mexican food is like. Most have it wrong.

Tex-Mex certainly owes a lot to the “Mex” side of the equation, but it’s no accident the “Tex” comes first: It’s an American interpretation of another cuisine. A good analogy might the synergy between Cajun and Creole cooking in Louisiana: They may share some basic ingredients, but one tends toward a spicy country-style profile; the other works in a smoother, sophisticated idiom.

And that’s what Komali is to Tex-Mex.

Chef-owner Abraham Salum opened Komali earlier this year next door to his eponymous sister eatery, returning to his roots South of the Border for inspiration. We haven’t really seen its like since Monica Greene shuttered her Oak Lawn resto Ciudad four years ago. Greene and chef Joanne Bondy only grudgingly added chips and salsa to the menu after customers groused that they expected the familiar munchies while sipping tequila and reading over the entrees (that’s a Tex-Mex thing). So far, Komali has resisted the allure to Texify its menu, sticking fairly authentically to recipes from regional Mexico.

Of course, that takes some getting used to. The quesadillas ($8.50) here are fried crisp and puffy, in a variety of colored tortillas. For those expecting pizza-like wedges, they come as a shock, and they are greasier than their American cousins, but that is cut by the heat of he raw tomatillo salsa and the creaminess of the excellent, chunky guacamole.

Mole is the sauce of choice on many of the items, itself a refreshing option rarely seen in Tex-Mex joints. A deeply spiced, faintly chocolatey topper, it can range from pasty to watery. The version here splits the difference:

Slightly soupy with chucks of spiciness that burst out. It accompanies both the Qaxaca-style tamale ($8.50) and the Robusto cigar-sized enchilada that accompanies that tampiquena filet ($20).

Scoop up a little to dip the filet in, one of the highlights of the menu.

Again, expectations are subverted: Rather than a thick, puck-like disc of beef, the filet at Komali snakes across the plate like a flank steak, though nearly free of fat. Minimally dressed with cracked black pepper, it’s as tender as a Shakespearean sonnet. Ask for a ramekin of spicy brown abrol salsa (or just piggyback on the mole) to bring out even more flavor.

Screen shot 2011-11-03 at 7.34.51 PMKomali does sea as well as land; when you remove the banana leaf from the salmon filet ($18), your eyes are visited with a shiny, poached square of brilliant fish that practically falls apart if you look at it too long; your nose may detect the citrusy hint of oranges. You couldn’t cook a more perfect piece of fish.

(For unbridled spiciness, best to look to the bar, where mixologist Leann Berry has crafted an array of addictive cocktails, like the namesake, bright as an hibiscus flower, and a habanero margarita that has more kick than a rodeo mule.)

Chef Salum acts as his own pastry chef, serving up chocoflan, churros (served with a demitasse of hot chocolate) and crepas con cajeta, milk-infused crepes that pull sweetness from plantains.

As with Salum next door, the atmosphere is elegant yet approachable: Painted concrete floor, fresh flowers and neutral beiges are warm without distracting from the food. Good call.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 4, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas