Drive-by Tasting: Rock N Taco

SCENE OF THE CRIME | Carne asada and carnitas tacos lacked punch, but still had more than the watery margaritas. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

One visit. One meal. One shot to get it right

Direct marketing works. But it can backfire, as it did with Rock N Taco.

After a long, hard week at work, I needed to unwind. As if the World Wide Web sensed my stress, an e-mail popped into my in-box: $2 margaritas at Rock N Taco for happy hour, it said. Free appetizers. I had my plans.

Problem was, when I arrived at the nearly deserted McKinney Avenue restaurant, there were no apps set out, no reminder from the waitress of the great happy hour prices on tequila drinks. In fact, she told me they were three dollars.

Strike one. But it’s only a buck, right? Might as well. I ordered one on the rocks.

Strike two.

When the margarita finally arrived, it had about as much punch let in it as a boxer in round 9. Flat and favorless, it was a watery waste of agave nectar. I ordered a second, frozen, to see if the volume provided by the ice improved things. It did, slightly. Now you couldn’t tell so much that the alcohol content tasted on par with the basement brunch at the local Baptist church. At least it left me free that evening to operate heavy machinery.

I still don’t know what the appetizers taste like at Rock N Taco, as they were never set out and I didn’t bother ordering any. I stuck with the “rock your own” taco plate.

Let’s discuss the name for a second, too: Taquerias are as common in Dallas as vowels at the end of names in the barrio. Adding the word “rock” to one doesn’t, alone, justify charging three bucks per. (The best tacos in town are from the little lady inside the Fiesta on Ross Avenue. One dollar and she smiles at you.) You wanna rock me? Rock me! That doesn’t happen here, despite the zebra-print upholstery, signature drink called a “pink thing” (please, guys — grow up) and TVs blaring sports from every peripheral angle.

The tacos are the style I prefer: Small and packed densely with protein. But the carne asada taco, while flavorful, was as tough as a calculus midterm; by contrast, the juicy carnitas seemed like they hadn’t been seasoned at all. Of course, you can add some salsa (the tomatillo version is actually quite delicious, with lots of heat) and some a la carte sides: I tried the sliced avocado (good, but how can you mess that up?) and a chile-lime corn relish that was gummy but engaging.

Service didn’t impress me. Not at all. The margaritas took forever to arrive, and my water remained un-refilled as if they were rationing it in deference to Japanese tsunami victims. The waitress made me tab out early because her shift was ending and spent most of her time chatting with the only other person in the place (not a customer, it seemed, but a friend). I skipped dessert as I didn’t have another hour to wait for it to arrive.

Overall impression: Lacks buzz, lacks service, lacks consistent flavor in the food. Some of the items might actually deserve props (that salsa!), only it would require a repeat visit to get them.

Recommended: No.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 18, 2011.

—  John Wright

To the Maximo

Chef Amador Mora goes to North Dallas in order to head South of the Border, with excellent results

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

Maximo’s roaming guacamole
HAVE AVOCADO, WILL TRAVEL | Maximo’s roaming guacamole cart brings fresh ingredients right to your table. Just try to resist. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

One of the first things you notice about Maximo is that the place is serious about its tequila. Makes sense — its full name is Maximo Cocina Mexicana & Margarita Lounge. If you’re gonna name yourself after a margarita, you’d better be adept at blending the fermented nectar of the agave with style.

One sip of the signature drink, an impossibly spicy concoction muddled with jalapeno that warms as it refreshes, and you know the bar takes risks. And they pay off.

But not just the bar. The restaurant, which opened in the North Dallas space vacated by BLT Steak more than a year ago, is no more a taqueria than Five Sixty is a Chinese takeout spot. The chef-partner, Amador Mora, trained at the Mansion and helped create Trece’s high-end Mexican style.

There are Tex-Mex elements, but the source is really Mexico’s regional cuisine itself without the American patina. Yes, there are enchiladas and quesadillas, but also steamed salmon, braised short ribs and banana crepes. Try finding that on the board next time you drive through Taco Bell.

Like Javier’s and the late, lamented Ciudad, Maximo relishes fine dining with that familiar flair. Take the empanadas: These small turnovers (here called empanaditas, $9) have the usual chorizo and spinach filling, but then Mora sneaks in olives, an airy tomatillo salsa and watermelon pico de gallo. The crust itself is flaky as all get-out.

Enjoy them with the flavorful lobster nachos and the signature guac, handmade at a roving cart. There’s something tantalizing about the glistening reds of tomato, the verdant cilantro and creaminess of avocado mashed into a chunky dip that can’t help but get you salivating. Add to that three salsas — one green with pineapple, a charred red and a creamy style — that elbow each other around for the title “favorite;” I’m still undecided which to hoard next time.

Maximo’s gazpacho ($4.50/$8) is a study in scarlet — a startlingly vibrant soup that packs a kick from fresh cilantro, heirloom tomatoes and pickled garlic, then cooled by cucumber and a crabmeat ragout. For a late summer dish, it can’t be matched. Heartier is the tortilla soup with chicken stewed in guajillo chile broth. The salads are as lightly dressed as a bodybuilder on Venice beach and equally mouthwatering.

Hands down, the top enchilada I’ve found in North Texas is at Reata in Fort Worth, but Maximo’s version, called Alberta’s ($15), gives it a run for its money.

Ceviche and grilled shrimp notwithstanding, Mexican cuisine doesn’t get its due for use of seafood; Maximo helps right that wrong. Here, a steamed fillet of salmon ($23) glazed with tequila and lime and brushed with a citrus pesto perches atop an organic corn pudding. The salmon, such a strong fish, stands up well to the spicy chiles (and a second margarita if you’re so inclined), with the sweetness of the corn offering balance.

A braised short rib ($22) doesn’t sound very Latin, but add a truffled chimichurri and you’re onto something. Even the most American element on the menu — a side of mac and cheese — takes on a Mexican accent with a chipotle infusion. After 24 hours slow cooking, the meat falls off the bone.

The desserts are great, too — and not just flan and tres leches. In fact, we tried completely different offerings (all $6): Crepes with caramelized banana, chile pecans and rum, which give a French classic a mariachi’s flamboyance; the “bomba” chocolate volcano cake with tequila in the fudge; and a peach and basil sorbet, more refreshing than an honest politician.

The wine list is as substantial as the tequilas (ask for a bottle of the Torentes — a real treat), which helps establish Maximo as a fine dining destination, as do the lush curtains and muted lighting. But there are also rustic tables and natural woods to keep it earthy and grounded. Casual and classy. Muy bien.

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TASTING NOTES

Rathbun goes retail; Samuel gets his Nosh on; Dish’s new menu

Kent Rathbun, the chef who happily lines up diners for his restaurants Abacus, Jasper’s and Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen, is now making it easier for them not to visit. He’s launched his own home product line, named Kent Rathbun Elements, so amateur chefs can approximate the cuisine he whips up.

Well, not really. Just take a look at the dish Kent whipped up, below, using his roasted shallot and black pepper vinaigrette. Most of us won’t take the time to make something that gorgeous after work, but damn if the dressing — straight out of the bottle — doesn’t finish the dish beautifully.

The products have been on the shelves since April, but only recently did Rathbun tweak the recipes in the entire line, which also includes a home version of his coconut lobster shooter sauce, a Thai style, very spicy red curry with a terrific taste on the back end, a Caesar salad dressing and a barbecue sauce that works just as well on a scallop as on a spare rib.

Over on Oak Lawn, Avner Samuel’s new venture Nosh opened this week in the space previously occupied by his high-end French bistro Aurora. The atmosphere (and the price point) is more laid-back as the name implies, with almost all entrees $19 and under and noshable small plates like ahi tuna tartare ($11), spiced beef cigars ($5) and miso glazed Bershire pork ribs ($6).

Dish at the ilume has added a few new dishes to its lunch menu, including a turkey club wrap, spinach-artichoke flatbread and two pasta dishes. The kitchen has also introduced “protein plates” for the gym rats. Mention that you heard about the new lunch menu and they’ll take 10 percent off your check.

On Saturday, the Dallas Arboretum brings back its harvest tea service, which runs through Nov. 14. The most civilized of dining traditions, it features a butternut squash soup, finger sandwiches and dessert (including an autumnal-sounding apple spice cake), as well as a selection of teas of course, in the DeGolyer Team Room. The cost is $40 (add champagne to the lunch for $9 more). Admission and parking at the Arboretum are included.

Naan Sushi, the Plano-based Japanese restaurant, will open its new Uptown location in the Gables Villa Rosa project. Service will begin in November.

Chef Stephan Pyles is taking his cuisine on the road … sort of. He’s teamed up with David Morris International to offer guides tours of exotic culinary destinations including Tahiti and Peru. Trips begin in the fall.

— A.W.J.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens