If you grew up in Texas, moved to New York, and tried to find comfort in a Tex-Mex combination plate, you know what I am about to write. Many restauranteurs have tried to open Tex-Mex joints but have failed. What comes naturally to those of us who worship lard-based dishes and chili without beans is a stretch for New York “chefs” who are hell-bent on spinning their own version of Tex-Mex.
Let’s call it a draw: Texans can’t make bagels and New Yorkers fail to effectively reproduce a simple plate of cheese enchiladas.
A few weeks ago, I received an email with “Dallas native starts a Tex-Mex craze in NYC” in the subject line. I took the bait and opened the note.
Blah, blah, blah, “Matt Post is a Dallas native who” blah, blah, blah, “launched New York City’s current Tex-Mex craze when he opened Javelina, a high quality ingredient-driven Tex-Mex restaurant” blah, blah, blah “Since Javelina opened, the city has become obsessed with Tex-Mex” blah, blah.
A few days later, I ran across this story in the New York Post titled “The Hot New Queso Dish That is Driving New Yorkers Loco.” The dish? Bob Armstrong Dip, a signature item on the menu at Matt’s El Rancho in Dallas and Austin.
I imagined a New Yorker cover illustration showing crazed New Yorkers fighting over vats of orange tubs filled with melted Velveeta. I perused the Javelina menu. I decided to check the pulse and called the owner, Matt Post.
I also dispatched two Dallas gals who grew up eating at Mia’s, Mi Cocina, and Matt’s to check it out. The day after I interviewed Post, New York Times critic Pete Wells ripped Javelina a new quesadilla. His issues were mostly with erratic service and cold queso, two irritants not easily dismissed. But what does he know? He refers to “chile sauce” on top of the enchiladas when every food writer south of the Mason-Dixon line knows that it is chili sauce.
But I’m getting off topic.
Post has no prior restaurant experience. He hired Rich Caruso as his chef. Caruso, an Italian from Brooklyn, graduated from The New York Restaurant School and ran the kitchen at the NYCs popular Rosa Mexicana before he was picked off by Hill Country, the Texas-style barbecue joint in the city. Post nabbed Caruso, and they set out across Texas to develop the menu.
Javelina opened in Gramercy Park at the beginning of March. It has been mobbed since the first day. Post was smart. He rounded up over 300 Texans and conducted 25 private tastings. The testers were given ballots and asked for feedback. Caruso adjusted recipes, according to the comments. Tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram notices spread across the boroughs. Texans came, and they are still coming.
My Dallas gals respected Caruso’s efforts at Javelina. They admit their tastebuds are frantic for anything remotely reminiscent of home. Here is what they had to say about Javelina.
Everything was very rich and packed with toppings and ingredients. The brisket tacos weren’t crisp like Mia’s; they were more Mexican-style with lots of toppings which made it a little more soggy.
The queso at first had a Velveeta-y taste, but it may have been our taste buds adjusting after a queso draught that New Yorker Texans are all too accustomed to. Margaritas were on point and tasted like home. Fajitas were served on a steaming dish; the steak was perfect and better than typical Dallas joint. Chiles rellenos was star dish – deep fried and Austin-style like Matt’s which is plentiful with pecans.
We WILL say that we never crave Tex-Mex in New York because it’s not an option. But even after overdosing last night we want it again.
I’m waiting to hear from other New Yorker Texans. Post and Caruso have something on the menu from all regions of Texas. Check out the photo gallery above. Anybody else been? And Pete, if you want to dine with my experts, they’d love to educate your palate.