Dallas, it’s time to wake up and taste the mole. For too many years, you’ve treated any dish served with a mole as if it were an infectious disease. Perhaps poor misunderstood mole needs a Facebook page to get you to like it. Once you’re friends, you can dig deeper into its profile and get familiar with not just mole’s complex personality but some of Mexico’s other spirited ingredients.
You will learn the word “mole” is simply a Spanish term for sauce. Almost every city, town, or street vendor on the plaza of a village has its own variety of mole rooted in the local culture. There are red, yellow, green, rusty brown, and black moles, each a unique concoction started with rehydrated chiles (traditionally a combination of pasilla, ancho, and cascabel) that are thickened with ground nuts, seeds, corn, or bread and seasoned with dozens of herbs. Some moles are based on sweet-and-tangy tomatoes or poblano peppers; others are invigorated by raisins or plums. The dark, dense, and intense mole negro from Oaxaca leaves a mysterious hint of unsweetened chocolate on the palate.
If you don’t make an effort to like this food, you will miss the hottest culinary trend in Dallas, and I know how you hate to be out of the loop. Regional Mexican cuisine takes you beyond the enchiladas, rice, and beans of Tex-Mex to dishes prepared with guajillo peppers, corn smut, and lengua. Buck up. It’s time to take the plunge. You can start with the gentle offerings at Komali.
After five years of serving modern New American cuisine with an international twist at his eponymous restaurant, Salum, chef Abraham Salum opened Komali, a restaurant that pays homage to the flavors he remembers from growing up in Mexico City. The quiet chef with the infectious smile has a colorful heritage. His parents were born in Mexico (his dad to Lebanese parents). He grew up on meals cooked by his Spanish and Lebanese grandmothers. “My Spanish grandmother combined cuisines,” Salum says. “She cooked Mexican dishes like tamales and meatballs, plus a lot of octopus and the best bacalao [a traditional Spanish dish of salted cod, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and onions]. My other grandmother made Arabic food like lamb and tabbouleh.”
At Komali, chef Salum presents his own interpretation of authentic Mexican food. He faces a lot of competition. Small spots such as Mesa, El Ranchito, Veracruz, and Cafe San Miguel are serving great regional Mexican food. Maximo and Alma, the newest upscale modern Mexican eatery opened by Tristan Simon and cheffed by Rick Bayless-trained chef Michael Brown, are charging big bucks for fancy Mexican-style enchiladas. This summer, talented chef Gabriel DeLeon (Masaryk Modern Mexican Kitchen) will start work in a new restaurant called Mi Dia in Grapevine. And former Ciudad owner and chef Monica Greene promises “the real deal” will open in December at her yet to be named contemporary Mexican restaurant in the Illume on Cedar Springs.
So far, chef Salum is holding his own. He seduced his loyal Park Cities crowd at Salum to try his new food next door. It’s no surprise that the No. 1 seller is chicken enchiladas topped with tomatillo salsa, avocado, and Mexican crema. Asked if this dish was a compromise for diners having difficulty moving past Tex-Mex, Salum says, “I was worried that people wouldn’t understand the difference between Mexican and Tex-Mex, which is full of chili, yellow cheese, and sour cream.”
While Komali offers “safe” options such as chicken enchiladas, chef Salum is dedicated to using classic cooking techniques and ingredients to sate those diners who crave real regional Mexican cuisine. Corn tortillas are hand patted in the kitchen. Tamales are prepared by women from Oaxaca. The queso fresco is made by a friend of Luisa Sanchez’s, the chef de cuisine at Komali. Chef Salum convinced the folks at Caprino Royale, a small goat dairy and cheese factory in Waco, to make cajeta, the sweet caramel sauce he pours over chocolate flan and light, folded crepes.
After three visits, I came to prefer lunch and cocktail hour over dinner service, mainly because the long list of appetizers and sopas are some of Komali’s most authentic dishes. I like creating a more intimate eating experience by combining the small plates from various regions of Mexico.
If you stop by late in the afternoon and order drinks, they are accompanied by a platter of nibbles that might include miniature sopes, taquitos, quesadillas, albóndigas, or tostadas. If you’re lucky, you’ll get several of the little deep-fried tortillas filled with cheese and seasoned with huitlacoche, a fungus spore harvested from corn. Huitlacoche is also known as corn smut. While Komali’s deep-fried tortillas resemble empanadas, the crispy concoctions are what you get when you order quesadillas in Mexico. You won’t find huitlacoche listed on the menu. And if a customer asks what gives the quesadilla its earthy flavor, Salum spins it sweetly, describing it as “a truffle that grows on corn.”The menu offers a familiar item, puréed black bean soup, next to an exotic one, huatape verde de mariscos, which is a complex tomatillo, onion, garlic, and white wine broth thickened with masa. The wondrous soup is filled with tender mussels, buttery scallops, and soft shrimp. The dish is a bargain $10 meal and a sure hangover cure. Several people at my table weren’t too jazzed by the pork pozole, but I’m a sucker for the sturdy liquid from braised pork simmered with quajillo peppers until it reaches a spicy, smoky, almost tomato flavor. Whole kernels of hominy float next to chunks of tender pork that break apart at the touch of a fork. Season it your way. The pozole is served with a plate of thinly sliced cabbage and radishes, chopped cilantro, and a pinch of ground oregano.
Tex-Mex fans, beware. When you order the queso fundido, you won’t receive a melamine bowl filled with melted Velveeta. Instead, you’ll find hot cheese nirvana with bubbling white Oaxacan cheese mixed with chorizo, mushroom, or poblano. Spoon the melted cheese into a warm corn tortilla, and add a touch of one of the two side salsas. One is a rusty red concoction of arbol chiles, cilantro, and tomatillo. The other is a blend of pasillo pepper, cilantro, and red onion.
Shrimp tostadas are gringo-friendly. Each of the three tostadas is topped with a handful of shrimp lightly tossed in Mexican crema mixed with chipotle, onions, tomatoes, and fresh cilantro. I love the ceviche at Stephan Pyles, but Komali’s generous portion of snapper marinated in lime juice with slices of avocado is the best I’ve tried in a long time. Both items are summer friendly, especially when paired with a nice white wine.
Unfortunately, Komali’s anemic wine list makes such a pairing difficult. Of all the cuisines in the world, the complex flavors of Mexican food scream for wines that harmonize with them. Servers weren’t much help pairing our dishes with the short list of wines from Argentina, Mexico, Chile, and Spain. Until they get this situation fixed, I’d point you to the stellar list of close to 100 tequilas. They offer vertical flights (blanco, reposado, and anejo varieties of the same brand of tequila) or horizontal ones (three samples of the same variety, but different brands). If you need assistance with tequila, grab a seat in the bar, and ask Leann Berry, whom you might recognize if you frequented Ciudad. She has designed some delightful concoctions, including a brilliant sweet and sour tamarind margarita, which I think is the best version of this classic Mexican drink north of Ixtapa.
Dinner service begs you to follow the appetizer, salad, entrée format, and, naturally, this being Dallas, Komali has a steak-and-potatoes option. But here the 8-ounce pan-seared filet rests in a rich, rusty almendrado sauce that translates loosely into a béchamel with tomatoes and crushed almonds. A lovely ball of fried goat cheese sits atop the beef, and the plate is filled to capacity with fried potatoes and mixed vegetables. The kitchen uses chef Salum’s grandmother’s recipe for albóndigas en salsa de pasilla (Mexican meatballs). Bordering on bland, the ground pork and beef is mixed with rice and a touch of mint. The accompanying side of rice is simply scented with cilantro. The dish gets a slight kick from the pasilla sauce made from dried peppers and tomatoes.
Skip the chiles rellenos stuffed with crab. It might sound good, but the delicate crab is overpowered by the poblano pepper. Instead, treat yourself to one of the wonders of the culinary world, the black mole from Oaxaca. The dark, almost purple sauce is served over chicken and topped with sesame seeds. The sweet and burnt flavors fade in and out of the rich mixture of ancho and guajillo peppers, tortillas, onion, garlic, and unsweetened chocolate, and then end with a mild cinnamon finish.
Unlike the hearty cuisine, Komali’s contemporary interior design, created by Julio Quiñones, is slick and stark. The bleak exterior is forgotten once you open the door. The first thing you see isn’t a human; it’s a striking Italian sandstone sculpture of half a face that doubles as a chair. It shocks you into feeling you’ve just walked into an art museum instead of a restaurant. To the right is the bar area with a long communal table and a row of banquettes backed by floor-to-ceiling windows. The art installation in the main dining room is a pastel yellow and blue tiled mosaic fireplace covered with three-dimensional ceramic objects and broken pottery. All of the walls are covered with sisal, a fiber made from agave leaves, and painted white.
I gasped the first time I walked in, but after sitting in a corner booth, I found the main dining room austere. And the strip of mirror above the booths at eye level is dreadfully unsettling for those of us who do not like to watch ourselves eat.
Abraham Salum has succeeded in creating a stylish restaurant with a focus on regional Mexican cuisine. I enjoyed my meals at Komali, but I’d like to see him take a few more chances with his menu. “We did my lengua, muendo, and beef tripe tacos for brunch one day,” Salum says. “We thought the staff would end up eating it, but we sold out.” That Facebook page is adding new friends every day who appreciate the difference between Mexican and Tex-Mex.
For more information about Komali, visit our restaurant guide.