We’ve taken a shine to El Bolero, a shoo-in for Design District Mexicuisine
The Spanish word “bolero” has a multitude of meanings, and not all that related to one another. For one, it’s a slow-moving piece of music (exemplified by Maurice Ravel’s fever-dream of a melody, Bolero); it’s also a fashion term, denoting a short jacket, also called a shrug. In Mexico, it’s a nickname for a shoeshine boy. And that’s exactly how El Bolero, the new South of the Border cocina in the Design District, intends it.
I’m not exactly sure why, and I haven’t bothered to ask. Perhaps it intends to evoke a rustic authenticity — a “real people, real food” aesthetic. Outside the entrance, there’s an old-school shoeshine station, complete with shoe forms, chair and canopy advertising complimentary shines (though, on four visits, I’ve never seen it manned by a bootblack). Inside, the menus arrive on papers folded between a swatch of weathered boot leather. The music playing, though, has never been Ravel and rarely even the adagio you’d expect from a mariachi. No, beyond the quirkiness of its owners (who also run neighboring bistros Pakpao and Oak), the significance of El Bolero’s name will remain a mystery.
What’s not a mystery, though, is the appeal of the food, which brings to the burgeoning Design District a sophisticated take on the cuisines from Central and Northern Mexico to Oaxaca, Yucatan and the Gulf (plus, because we’re in Dallas, Tex-Mex).
The Tex-Mex influence is clear when you sit down and are presented with a duet of salsas (tangy tomatillo and subtle tomato) and an engaging stack of tortilla chips. You don’t get chips and salsa anywhere south of the Rio Grande, but when you get freshly made tortilla chips as addictive as these (and not over-salted), with salsas that score, you can forgive a bit of cultural cross-pollination.
The eclectic style is reflected in the décor as well. On the back wall are two mosaics, one that recalls a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, the other a bandito-looking fellow who could be Don Diego de la Vega without the mask. Bright yellow barstools contrast to the Mission-style table-seating, while terra cotta accents and cocoa-colored leathers and woods prevent it from looking like a quincenera dress.
For such a young, and comparatively casual, restaurant, the staff has been consistently as enthusiastic about the menu as the diners. (A grinning bartender or waiter goes a long way toward setting the tone for a meal.) On one visit, as we enjoyed our third stack of tortilla chips and salsa, our server brought out a third sauce — usually reserved for certain entrees, we were told. It accompanied the rest of the dishes well, and made a welcome addition to the spicy salsa verde and the rich roja.
It’s not just at the edges, though, where El Bolero succeeds. There’s an almost symphonic harmonizing of flavors on the arrachera that layer in increasingly interesting ways. First, of course, is the skirt steak, rubbed with chiles and dabbed in salsa to impart a mild heat. The beef at Bolero, smoky and unusually tender, pairs well with the grilled vegetables, especially the nopales and medallions of purple potato, which lend a hearty, rustic structure. Alongside the steak are two blue corn quesadillas grilled with shrimp (redolent of the saltiness of the Gulf) and melted cheese, and topped with a dollop of guac. Think of each element — smoke, vegetal, salt, sweetness, earthy — coming together as one on the tongue. The union can be intoxicating.
The arrachera costs a definitely-worth-it $22, but in a town where hole-in-the-wall taquerias sell succulent mouthfuls for a little as a buck, giving value as a sit-down restaurant can be threading a needle. But prices at El Bolero are consistently reasonable: the most expensive item on the dinner menu — the carne a la parilla flank steak, similar to the arrachera but without the salsa (and with a chile relleno), clocks in at merely $24 — will satisfy not just your appetite but your tastebuds.
Even the Friday-only special of lobster fajitas won’t set you back much more than a notch on your belt. (It’s a smallish lobster, but the preparation is lovely and homemade corn tortillas offer a genuine treat).
Assortments of tacos (mostly $10 for four), including an al pastor (with a rotating trompo visiting in the open kitchen), exceeded expectations; at lunch, the barbacoa torta ($10) merely met them.
Enchiladas and mole are my jam in Mexican food, so I couldn’t resist the combo here ($18). The deft presentation of these small, nicely rolled tubes of pulled chicken topped with in-house mole impressed me, though the tactic doesn’t always translate. The soul of the chorizo-and-potato flautas appetizer ($9) is there, but a salad of lettuce, cojito, crema and salsa — similar to the entree enchiladas, where the presentation worked — felt hidden under a needless pastiche that added nothing. (Flautas are finger food to me, not meant for knife-and-fork consumption.
But with tequila flights on hand from the massive selection of mezcals, live music during weekend brunches and virtually every region of Mexico at your culinary command, complaints are just swatting at flies. I’ve quickly taken a shine to El Bolero.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 19, 2015.