Raul Reyes opened his first restaurant in 2008, a tiny place in Oak Cliff serving the colorful cuisine of his birthplace, the Veracruz region of Mexico. La Palapa Veracruzana was run by his family, wife Olga working as his co-chef, daughter Jaretzy taking managerial duties, and son Raul Jr. waiting tables. The seafood-centric menu snagged the palates of serious food lovers and critics in Dallas, but the kudos posted on food blogs and the glowing reviews couldn’t keep it alive. It closed after only a year.
“We never pulled an alcohol license,” Reyes says by way of explanation. “I couldn’t. My daughter was manager and she was only 17.”
Dejected, Reyes figured he would have to shed his chef whites forever and return to the construction business to support his family. Before La Palapa Veracruzana closed, Reyes had augmented his income by taking on handyman jobs. Chris Zielke, co-owner of Bolsa and Smoke, had hired Reyes to rebuild the bar at Bolsa, the popular farm-to-table restaurant in the Bishop Arts District. So Reyes showed up at Bolsa one day and told Zielke he’d closed his restaurant. Zielke encouraged Reyes to try again. He offered to help the family with marketing. Word that Zielke was lending a hand to Reyes hit the restaurant community, and other volunteers turned up to offer their assistance. Nick Zukin, co-owner of Kenny & Zuke’s Delicatessen in Portland, Oregon, flew down and traded his knowledge of food costing and plating in exchange for cooking lessons. (Zukin is opening a Mexican restaurant in Portland.) Former Bolsa bartender Eddie “Lucky” Campbell helped revise a cocktail menu. The team came up with a new name for the old space, Mesa Veracruz Coastal Cuisine, and devised a marketing plan and a service training program.
“Their help was amazing, but I couldn’t get investors to trust me,” Reyes says. “Everybody thought our food was amazing, but nobody thought we could get gringos to eat that kind of food in this area.”
Well, this gringa would gladly eat any dish on Mesa’s menu, even if it was served on the sidewalk—though I much prefer the cozy 50-seat dining room on West Jefferson. Mesa is only 1 mile from the trendy eateries in the Bishop Arts District, but the atmosphere of the neighborhood transports you to another world. Instead of chic t-shirt shops, boutiques, and trendy bars, the lively strip of West Jefferson between Beckley and Zang is lined with quinceañera and bridal dress stores, pawn shops, and tattoo parlors. At night, the street scene is festive. Families stroll and chat with neighbors, street vendors sell Mexican paletas, and teenagers hang on the sidewalk, blasting Latin music from boom boxes.
Reyes removed the funky thatched awning of La Palapa Veracruzana and created a sleek tinted glass entrance. Inside you’ll find a DIY dream. Almost all the materials used to build the restaurant came from Reyes’ relentless dumpster diving. “I had no money so I thought about recycling,” Reyes says. “I built everything myself.”
The interior is as stunning as the food. Colorful cactus blooms poke from shallow holes carved into a brick wall. A row of old wooden pallets has been sanded, stained, and backlit with rope lights. They hang on the main wall lined with banquettes. The community table was built with wood Reyes salvaged from the fence that once surrounded the restaurant’s dumpster. The railing at the entrance and the wall hangings were created from scraps of metal rescued from trash bins at Wooten Metal. Several customers have tried to buy the large mirror Reyes framed with acid-washed tin. The dining room is so personal that you can’t help but feel like you are eating in someone’s home.
In reality, you are. Raul and Olga are back in the kitchen, and Raul Jr. and Jaretzy are once again in the front of the house. The whole Reyes “show” has been polished and shined. Trained servers, bartenders, and staffers allow Raul and Jaretzy to excel in personalized service. Every time I visited, the tempo of the meals was upbeat and smooth.I’ve eaten almost every item on Mesa’s menu. Not because I had to; I wanted to. For me, dining at Mesa was more than scoring a great dinner. It was an uplifting experience. After my meals, I didn’t feel like jumping into my car to get home in time for The Daily Show. Instead,
I stayed and walked the street. I popped into open shops, wished I had the arms to pull off the strapless purple gown I coveted in a quinceañera shop window, and held my 3-year-old nephew as he dipped his head into a bike vendor’s frost box to pick out his first paleta.
I started every meal with a different cocktail. The house-made horchata laced with rum, coconut, and vanilla is superb but too sweet for predinner. However, it was a perfect postprandial treat. The scarlet Veracruz Cosmo and the refreshing Jamaica Paloma made with homemade hibiscus water (they buy and boil the flowers daily) and tequila (or vodka) are guaranteed to get your juices flowing. Most of the appetizer plates revolve around corn tortillas made daily in the kitchen. Order a sampler plate, and you’ll enjoy two enfrijoladas (mini casseroles of black beans, queso fresco, and corn tortillas), two platanos rellenos (sticks of fried plantain), two picadas (tiny masa tartlets), and one empanada filled with cheese.
The ceviche is not to be missed. Fresh snook and shrimp are tossed in a sauce of ketchup, Orange Crush, and Key lime juice strained from the marinade that “cooked” the fish. (The bar adds the same seafood-infused red sauce to the Bloody Marys.) The hefty portion of ceviche is topped with chunks of avocado and cilantro. Thick triangular chips make the mixture easy to scoop and share. If you’d like a preview of the outstanding mole waiting in the entrée section, order enmoladas, three pan-fried tortillas dipped in mole, folded, and topped with cheese.
One of Raul and Olga’s signature dishes is Mole de Mama Cata. Reyes’ mother-in-law grew up cooking it. At Mesa, they make mole twice a week. The recipe calls for 20 ingredients and combines pasilla, guajillo, ancho, and morita chiles with homemade sweet cookies, bread, cinnamon, sugar, and sugar cane. Reyes refused to be any more specific than that about the family’s secret recipe. Each batch is cooked initially for at least seven hours on the first day. Over the course of three more days, the sauce is boiled and reduced before serving. “I can’t explain the chemical combination this produces,” Reyes says. “I only understand it when I taste it.”
The mole is simply the most satisfying version I’ve ever tasted in Dallas. The subtly sweet and savory sauce was the perfect accompaniment to a lovely duck leg. But that wasn’t even my favorite dish. I am hopelessly addicted to the oxtail, which is slow-cooked for eight hours and served in a sauce scented with hoja santa, a plant that grows like kudzu in Veracruz. After a long simmer, the harsh flavor of fresh hoja santa melts into a soft, savory flavor with hints of black pepper, anise, and a slight finish of mint. I believe the concoction causes loss of social skills. Both times I ordered this dish, which comes with a cob of roasted corn and masa dumplings, I picked up the oxtail bones and chewed on them with all the manners of a jackal, sneering at anyone who tried to touch my plate.
My mother was equally stingy. She refused to share her Gulf snapper topped with a sexy stewed tomato sauce filled with green olives, capers, onions, and carrots. My usually generous gal pal proved parsimonious when it came time to share her vegetarian discovery, a black bean and masa tamal wrapped in hoja santa and banana leaves. At least my lazy friend allowed me to crack the crab leg jutting from the rich red tomato and rice stew. She’d already eaten the shrimp, scallops, mussels, crab, and octopus in the dish and was hanging her head over the rust-colored soup and savoring the aroma as if it were a cure for depression. “They should make perfume that smells this good,” she said.
All of my meals were served by Raul, and at no time did he or the rest of the service staff falter. The wine list is anemic (eight bottles!), which is disappointing because this food deserves more choices, even course pairings. Each time, we selected the familiar Marques de Cacerses Rioja from Spain, a bargain at $42.
Desserts are also a work in progress. But if you are a flan lover, you will be delighted when the semisweet, creamy, orange-flavored custard hits your tongue.
Thanks to a lot of determination and help from friends, Mesa is the talk of the town. And what about those investors who didn’t believe in Reyes’ mission? “They’ve been in to eat many times,” he says. “They said they were sorry they didn’t invest, but they would like to back me someplace else.” For now, Reyes is happy where he is on West Jefferson, where his family’s restaurant is packed with gringos every night.