Now I was confused. My cocktail was great. Appetizers were a mixed bag at best. Perhaps entrées would fare better. Ocho’s are listed under the headings “specialty tacos,” “comfort food,” “Santa Fe moderns,” and “Tex-Mex classics.” Some of the dishes, such as The Hot Pig, will be familiar to anyone who has dined at Coyote Cafe. Ocho’s tweaked version featured chipotle-and-agave-basted pork cutlets with crispy fried polenta, mole, tempura scallions, and coleslaw. A friend of mine who visits Santa Fe regularly and has dined at Coyote Cafe said that Ocho’s Hot Pig paled in comparison to the original. “Hot pig? More like hot mess,” she said. I agreed. The pork was dry, the mole lacked depth, and the tempura-fried scallions were tough and flavorless. A comfort food dish, Eric’s New Mexican meatloaf, was anything but comforting. Hot chorizo gravy smothered a blend of veal, pork, and beef with green chiles. Reads well on paper, but the dish was a mound of bland beige accompanied by a side of arugula.

“Flavorless” was a word I repeatedly jotted down during my numerous visits. Monkfish fajitas were dry and listless. The brandy green peppercorn mushroom sauce that topped 4-ounce tournedos of beef—called the Chuck Norris on the menu—tasted like something from a family-friendly chain steakhouse. “What’s that place called?” my friend asked. “Oh, yeah. Golden Corral.” Way harsh but on point.
Marinated steak tacos had tough beef and a horseradish slaw that lacked punch. One of the few entrées that did have flavor was the wild boar spare ribs. But thanks to a bourbon and berry glaze, they were way too sweet. You might think dessert would offer some solace. But the bourbon pecan pie and tres leches cake were both bores.

Ocho’s problems might be the result of a kitchen in need of leadership. DiStefano created the recipes. The cooking was left to opening chef Ross Demers, but he left after only two months on the job. Two sous chefs remain to execute DiStefano’s vision while he runs his restaurants in Santa Fe. Though Black insists that his sous are on the phone often with DiStefano and that “the king is doing a great job keeping everything consistent,” coming to Dallas once a month, it’s still hard to manage consistency from 650 miles away.

ocho_03 Ocho’s burro peach cocktail; wild boar ribs; dining room photography by Kevin Marple

With such lackluster fare, I wondered why Ocho’s patrons, the few that I saw, were in such a good mood. The appeal of the handsome space wasn’t lost on me. Void of Southwestern cliches, Ocho opts for a more modern look, with dark colors and cut stone columns. It’s a room that anyone would feel good in. Likewise, the cocktail list is inspired, created by the owners with outside input. It’s not on par with more ambitious cocktail dens in Dallas. But some drinks, such as the aforementioned Hatch Chile Smoke and the Tijuana Mule, with its refreshing mix of tequila, ginger beer, agave nectar, and fresh lime juice, were quite tasty. Still, with its struggling kitchen and scant (though boisterous) crowds, Ocho had the feel of a restaurant on the verge. One last visit seemed in order.

This time, I stuck to more basic fare for dinner and was rewarded with a fine meal indeed. Blue corn cheese enchiladas (oddly listed under “Tex-Mex favorites”) were served in their own skillet, allowing the tortillas to crisp up nicely on the bottom. The cheddar was gooey and tangy. Christmas chile, a blend of red and green chile sauces, was smoky and fragrant. I added two fried eggs on top for an additional $3. A setup of beans and green rice came on the side. The dish was approachable yet refined and, happily, delicious.

After dinner, we followed the party people upstairs to Ocho’s 8Bar. Here, the atmosphere turned moody, with blood red walls, faux crocodile banquettes, and slinky lounge music. The sensuous space was far more crowded than the dining room downstairs. We ordered more drinks and sat on the balcony facing Preston Road. Normally enclosed, the cozy patio has a roof that retracts when weather permits. “The lounge is definitely not an annex where people sit and wait for a table to open up,” Black says. “It’s a destination. A place to cater to those folk who want to stop in and have a nightcap.”

A beautiful place for the beautiful people of the Park Cities and Preston Hollow? Ah, now this I could understand. Perhaps Ocho would work better as a Park Cities playhouse with satisfying cocktails and bar food? On the patio, I looked out over the bustling street traffic below and the twinkling lights of Preston Center. And then I saw the garishly lit gas station across the street. Not the restaurant’s fault, no. But just as with the offerings inside, it was another inconsistency. Oh, well. There’s always more tequila.

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