The midlife crisis in the neighboring booth is drunk, famously drunk, the kind of drunk that would land a C-list celeb on TMZ. We’ve all been stuck next to this guy, and he has, if not spoiled, then at least tainted a night we had hoped to remember fondly. This time there’s no way out. The place is packed and you’re stuck. Your only hope? The restaurant performs so brilliantly that the drunk doesn’t matter. It offers a zinger of a bar menu, spit-roasted meats, a broken-in leather couch, and a level of hospitality that makes you feel as if you’ve found your long-lost tribe. In a word, Alma.
The latest overture from Tristan Simon’s Henderson Avenue empire (Fireside Pies, The Porch, Hibiscus) unfolds like a trip through a bohemian abuela’s attic. The restaurant’s magpie interior, cobbled together by Park’s Donald Chick, overflows with earth-tone textiles, worn leather, midcentury mirrors, and rich, wide-plank flooring. It’s all very secondhand chic.
I met the man behind Alma’s menu, the tattooed and subdued executive chef Michael Brown, just days after he landed in Dallas. In late 2010, Simon romanced him away from Red O in Los Angeles, the first restaurant outside Chicago that features cuisine designed by Rick Bayless. When the duo opened Alma’s doors in early February, they did so with a humble menu and a simple mission: no pinto bean foam, no ancho brownies, no cerebral plating. Just honest, hearty fare sourced from its native regions—chocolate from Oaxaca, shrimp from the coast of Mazatlan, avocados from Michoacán—and prepared in a way that honors its cultural lineage.
Through multiple visits and some fairly unrepentant gluttony, I have tried nearly everything on the menu. Much of it twice. And some of it—like the guacamole that delivers on its buttery promise—on every single visit. The best way to approach dining at Alma is to arrive in advance of your reservation and enjoy a predinner cocktail on the leather couch in the upstairs lounge. The from-scratch craft cocktails hint at a pro’s touch; each is a studied balance between heat and sweet. Simon brought in celebrated Lower East Side Manhattan mixologist Christy Pope to design the Latin-themed cocktails. She was worth every dime. La Patada provides a fiery point of entry. It’s a savory mix of Cazadores blanco tequila, chipotle-infused Mezcal, fresh pineapple juice, fresh lime juice, house-made pineapple syrup, and cilantro. Likewise, the Tequila Smash dresses up an Espolón blanco tequila with crème de cassis and hand-pressed limes. It wakes up the tongue with a sweetness that’s refreshing without being cloying. The off-menu Paloma promises to be a fizzy grapefruit antidote to the punishing summer ahead.
When the food arrives, prepare to share. Small-plate starters from Oaxaca rev up the palate. Think spicy cucumber, jicama, and mango street snacks, and mini sopes loaded with black beans, crispy pork belly, and queso fresco. Don’t be surprised if bite-for-bite equality with your dining pals becomes difficult in the face of the ceviche d’Atun, a modest bowl of diced raw tuna, jicama, pressed watermelon, cucumber, lime juice, and serrano chiles. The combination, when consumed with tortilla chips, manages to hit the salty, sweet, spicy, and tart flavor centers all at once. My tablemates and I fought over it with our chips.
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A good way to measure the success of a dish is by how much time you spend talking about it between bites. Take the cochinita pibil, Brown’s slow-roasted, achiote-marinated pork shank, served atop black beans and garnished with pickled onions and wild arugula. From the first bite, I touted its merits to the whole table—its give, its fat ratio, its generous proportions. The tender bites and whisper of searing were so distracting that it took several passes around the table before I noticed the accompanying ramekin
of citrusy habanero dipping sauce that provided a combustible counterpoint that sent the pork’s savory notes flying off the chart.
Likewise, the enchilada rojo—a dense, casserole-like presentation of braised Beeman Ranch short rib, guajillo chile sauce, black beans, Chihuahua cheese, and crispy onions—provided a more subdued, yet no less favorable, impression thanks to fresh corn tortillas and a smooth, spicy finish. Same goes for the enchilada verde, which succeed equally but with an entirely different flavor profile thanks to lump crabmeat, white shrimp, and a creamy tomatillo sauce.
Though many menu items will remain constant, the current spring and summer rotation is rich with seafood dishes and ceviches from Veracruz and Acapulco. Spend summery, quality time with the atun Pacifico, which is ahi tuna massaged with guajillo chile rub, seared, sliced, and served with a tomato, mango, and jicama salsa fresca. The combination manages to feel both healthful and moderately decadent. As the weather cools in the fall, expect high-protein, inland central comfort foods like Mexican seafood stews and barbacoa from whole, spit-roasted goat.
That the entrée portions are generous should in no way hinder you from ordering sides of street corn and platanos con crema. The street corn arrives traditionally dressed with lime juice, creamy mayonnaise, queso fresco, and chili powder and is presented in three tidy corn-husk boats. Treat the platanos much as you would candied yams at Thanksgiving. The sweet, fried plantains topped with house-made sour cream and queso fresco are unnecessary yet indispensable.
[inline_image id=”2″ align=”r” crop=””]The dessert menu exists in its own orbit. Entire reviews could be written about the tres leches alone. Developed by Brown and pastry chef Eric Zeda, the dish goes airy where so many end up rubbery. The dessert’s loft, moistness, and balance result from precise portions of rum, pistachio brittle, cream, and condensed and evaporated milks. The table stood divided on the pastel de queso cheesecake, but only because no one could agree on whether the not-too-sweet goat cheese base was sullied by the shockingly sweet hoja santa sauce. Though we agreed to disagree, no one abandoned his or her fork. As an alternative, the budin de pan is, quite simply, a roasty, chocolaty house that flavor built.
Let’s not underestimate the West Coast wrinkle that chef Brown brings to Dallas’ table. From his Dia de los Muertos tattoos to his measured ambitions, he’s very California. And as much as he wants to nail the dishes every night, he also wants to know whether the menu is approachable. When the dish arrives in front of you, are its intentions clear? Call his approach abstract, but through this keen attention to the intangible, Brown has found the inroad to our affections.
The holistic approach extends from the vestibule to the farthest bar. “We’ve spent more time [developing our approach] than any other restaurant opening that I’ve been involved with,” Brown says, “selecting our kitchen crew, our bartenders, our servers, doing extensive education with them so that when they get to the table, they really know what they’re talking about.” Alma’s staff adoesn’t just understand the menu. They understand the importance of making eye contact, laughing, shaking hands, and using names. It’s a winning formula because, let’s face it, when you’re a nobody and the manager uses your name and shakes your hand on the way out, it makes you feel like a somebody. Somebody who’s far more likely to return. (For the record, it was my husband who felt like somebody; D Magazine always dines anonymously for reviews.)
The arrival of Alma marks a real stride forward for the already solid Henderson Avenue. Dallas restaurateurs have dallied with regional Mexican cuisine before, with mixed results. You need only look to Ciudad or Masaryk to see how Tex-Mex brainwashing has foiled this plot in the past. But Simon and Brown, men who are both savvy and persuasive, are here to teach the locals that mole need not be a four-letter word. Here, at last, are the dishes we didn’t know we were missing and an invitation to an experience that is greater than the sum of its ingredients. It’s a place of heart and reflection. And like the name suggests, Alma is quite possibly the place where the soul of the city can come home to roost.
For more information on Alma, visit our restaurant guide.