It was Saturday night in the Park Cities, and, thankfully, cliched coyotes were in short supply at the Santa Fe-inspired Ocho Kitchen and Cocktails in Preston Center. That is, unless you counted the middle-aged, willowy blonde teetering on black stilettos at the bar. Are coyotes and cougars related? She and her similarly groomed pack—little black dresses, chunky bangles, fresh blowouts—were tossing back tequila cocktails and howling their approval. We passed them cautiously on our way to our table.

Once seated in the sparsely populated dining area, I ordered a cocktail as well. What few people were there provided some entertaining eye candy. In one corner sat a conservatively coifed older couple that looked straight from Strait Lane. Piled into a leather banquette was a preppy party of 10 sharing appetizers and a penchant for canvas deck shoes and tightly cuffed chinos. The aforementioned blonde added two silk shirted gents to her crew and guided them upstairs to Ocho’s adults-only lounge.

The clientele was like an old-money-new-money greatest hits collection. Somewhere owners Brian Black and Ben Crosland had to be smiling. Both grew up in Highland Park and know the demographic well. Preston Center has long been a retail nexus for both the Park Cities and Preston Hollow. More recently, it has become a popular restaurant destination, with chef John Tesar’s Spoon drawing in foodies and the latest location of Nick & Sam’s Grill running a two-hour wait on the weekends. Black wanted in on the action. But only with the right restaurant.

Southwestern cuisine seemed the perfect fit. As a child, Black vacationed in Santa Fe. “There’s a huge contingency of people from Dallas who travel to Santa Fe for vacation,” he says. “Highland Park and Preston Hollow—these are the people who have second homes there. And it’s a corridor that knows chef Eric well.”

ocho_02 Pork Marble Shooters photography by Kevin Marple

The chef that Black refers to is Eric DiStefano of the famed Coyote Cafe and Geronimo restaurants in Santa Fe. Black has been working for four years to open a Southwestern restaurant in Dallas and build on the success he has had with Mi Piaci. A mutual friend introduced him to DiStefano. Coyote Cafe had recently opened a rooftop cantina, and the concept inspired Black with its small plates, premium cocktails, wine by the glass, and a more casual feel than DiStefano’s other restaurants. Thus Ocho was born, albeit with a slight addition to the original recipe: a Southwestern restaurant with a Tex-Mex twist. “Ben has opened Tex-Mex restaurants, chef [and co-owner] Eric  brings his Santa Fe knowledge, and I know the Dallas market and how to serve patrons well,” Black says. “It’s a good mix.”

It’s true. Ben Crosland did open a Tex-Mex restaurant. In 2000. In Chattanooga.

But one sip of a Hatch Chile Smoke cocktail eased my doubts about his Tex-Mex bona fides. Served on the rocks, the blend of El Jimador Reposado tequila, lemon juice, and agave nectar played like a sophisticated margarita with a nice sour-sweet balance and silky mouth feel. Green chile powder added a touch of heat. With such a smart start, I was primed to see what the kitchen had to offer. If only I had stopped at that first drink. After several visits to Ocho, I discovered that what looked tempting on paper rarely lived up to the menu’s promise or DiStefano’s pedigree. The “good mix” was more like a bad combo.

Let’s start with the basics, chips and salsa. If you’re going to serve Tex-Mex dishes, even bastardized versions, you had best get this staple right. Ocho’s roasted tomato and chipotle salsa was tepid and watery, tasting of overly sweet tomatoes and little heat. The avocado tomatillo salsa was inconsistent, bland on one visit and then welcomingly tart on another. Chips were too thick and crunchy. Two other Tex-Mex staples, guacamole and queso, were equally frustrating. A Hatch chile version of classic queso held nice flavor and heat, but the texture was grainy, and bits of chorizo made it greasy. Guacamole was far too creamy and acidic.

The nearby preppy party of 10 shared several orders of Ocho’s shooters—appetizers served in tall shot glasses with four to an order—and seemed to enjoy them. Or perhaps it was the tequila talking. Either way, I ordered some on my next visit. Sure enough, the shooters were a hit. Perfectly fried duck confit taquitos were stuffed with juicy fowl and dunked in a sweet and fiery grilled orange and serrano marmalade. Bite-size marbles of minced pork were skewered with grilled pineapple and poblano, resting in a sweet and spicy sambal sauce, a popular Southeast Asian chile-based condiment. Here were the Asian flavors DiStefano is known for at Geronimo. They appeared again in the jalapeño yuzu lime marinade on a tostada of Mexican white shrimp ceviche.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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