Tuesday, May 28, 2024 May 28, 2024
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Restaurant Review: Mi Dia From Scratch

Gabriel DeLeon was cooking regional Mexican before people were ready to eat it—and he failed. This time around, he hit the sweet spot.
photography by Kevin Marple

Over the last year, it seems all I’ve written about is regional Mexican food. In that time, Dallas has welcomed Alma, Komali, Mesa, Wild Salsa, BEE, and MesoMaya. The guajillo pepper has replaced the jalapeño, and mole is the new chili con carne. Long live huitlacoche!

Chef Gabriel DeLeon must be a little miffed by the trend. DeLeon comes from a family of chefs. His father worked at his uncle’s restaurant, Esparza’s Restaurante Mexicano in Grapevine, before going on to open La Margarita in Irving. When his father died in 1995, DeLeon took over La Margarita, where he has succeeded for 22 years. In 2009, though, DeLeon decided to open his own concept, a regional Mexican restaurant in Addison. Masaryk Modern Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Lounge was too early to the Mexican revolution. It closed after nine months. “Not having enough Tex-Mex at Masaryk was a real problem,” DeLeon says. He retreated to La Margarita and vowed he would never open another restaurant.

Then one afternoon in May 2010, Steve Hartnett called DeLeon. Hartnett got his start in the service industry in Lubbock, where he was a student at Texas Tech. It didn’t take long for him to realize Lubbock needed a good place where college kids could hang out and drink beer, so he scraped together enough money to open Town Draw, a sports-themed pub that was a huge hit. After he graduated with a degree in finance, Hartnett became a serial restaurant entrepreneur.

Designing and opening pubs was Hartnett’s passion, but he made serious money as a stock trader and money manager. Eventually his talent for turning profits in the financial markets coincided with his ability to make big money in the restaurant business. At one point, he owned more than 200 restaurants. In 1997, he came up with the idea to open a huge, high-end “social gathering place” with a bar, restaurant, and billiards club all under one roof. A year later, he opened the 22,000-square-foot Cool River Cafe in Irving.

In 2005, Hartnett sold off most of his restaurants. Today the empire he built is smaller and more focused on food excellence. He bought one unit of Bob’s Steak and Chop House and opened two Flip’s Grills. His most recent project, a four-restaurant community connected by walkways and a common courtyard, includes his Bob’s Steak and Chop House, Fireside Pies, and Winewood Grill. He desperately wanted the fourth restaurant to be Mexican. His search for a chef stopped with the call to DeLeon. “I couldn’t say no,” DeLeon says. “Steve really wanted to do something different by adding Tex-Mex and Santa Fe-style dishes to the menu. I liked that he wanted everything made from scratch.”

DeLeon is back with a big bang. Mi Dia From Scratch is a lovely, upscale restaurant specializing in regional Mexican cuisine, Tex-Mex, and Santa Fe-inspired dishes. DeLeon takes the “From Scratch” half of the name seriously. Almost everything—from the chili powder rubbed on the duck to the blue corn tortillas to the marshmallows in the Mexican s’mores—is made in DeLeon’s kitchen.

The contemporary setting is filled with warm mahogany wood, soft leather booths, and bold splashes of color from three photo-realistic oil paintings of fruit by Dennis Wojtkiewicz. A round bar of poured brownish concrete sits in the center of the long indoor seating space. A wall of floor-to-ceiling glass creates a seamless transition from inside to the outdoor patio, where gas heaters, stylish fire lamps, and an open fire pit keep you comfortable. The upholstered booths inside provide some privacy, but when the restaurant is full, you should consider sitting outside. It’s lovely to look across the way and watch the crowds on the other patios.

No matter where you sit, start with the guacamole prepared tableside. Yes, it’s a bit gimmicky but it’s a bargain. After the cart rolls up to the table, the server scoops out three large avocados ($9!) into a stone molcajete and offers more than 12 ingredients to customize your recipe, including sun-dried tomatoes, bacon, spices, peppers, and herbs. Both times I ordered the guacamole, it was undersalted, but that was easily fixed.

photography by Kevin Marple

The regional Mexican portion of the menu offers an outstanding version of cochinita pibil, pork shank wrapped in banana leaves and slow roasted. Peel back the leaves and the earthy scent of achiote envelopes you. The plate is finished with a scoop of black beans seasoned with bits of chorizo and toasted avocado leaves, and a mound of esquites, Mi Dia’s version of elotes. DeLeon roasts the corn, cuts it from the cob, and mixes it with a touch of crema, a squirt of lime, and a smidgen of queso fresco. He ups the flavor with a pinch of house-made
guajillo powder.

Mole plays a small but memorable role on Mi Dia’s menu. DeLeon picked up his version when he trained with renowned Mexican chef Patricia Quintana in Mexico City. The soul of red Puebla-style mole is the mixture of guajillo, ancho, and chilhuacle negro chiles. The smooth and sophisticated mole is served beneath tender medallions of grilled duck cooked to a cool, pink center. The subtle flavors of cinnamon, prunes, coriander, and almonds slowly reveal themselves with each bite. A crispy duck flauta is served atop spaghetti-like strands of chayote (a mild Mexican squash), simply seasoned with a little salt and pepper and sautéed in olive oil.

The Tex-Mex portion of the menu touts familiar items such as fajitas, tacos al carbon, and carne asada. However the “from scratch” methods DeLeon applies to common Tex-Mex items elevate their flavor profiles. Enchiladas are covered with chili con carne made from spices that have been freshly ground in the kitchen. Fajita meats (chicken, beef, shrimp) are grilled over pecan wood. All of the tortillas—blue corn, white corn, and flour—are insanely thin, hot, and fresh.

photography by Kevin Marple
The runaway favorite dishes were those prepared Santa Fe style. A shallow bowl filled with stacked enchiladas wasn’t the prettiest dish ever set in front of me, but it was one of the tastiest. Blue corn tortillas are layered with chicken, beef, or cheese, and topped with queso fresco and a fried egg. The mound is covered with red and green chile sauces. DeLeon worked with the chef of the famous Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen in Santa Fe, where he has been making red and green chile sauces since 1952. Judging from this one dish, I’d say he’s got them down perfect.

Even a somewhat dull-sounding burrito stuffed with beef or chicken fajita meat gets an A after it’s doused with red and green sauces. DeLeon calls it a Christmas burrito. Tamale lovers will swoon at the soft pork and masa surrounded by red and green. Be sure to take equal amounts of each—the green alone will burn your tongue.

But don’t worry. The tower of tequila at the bar bears 108 varieties of the spirit derived from the blue agave plant. Margaritas are made with lemon instead of lime, agave syrup, triple sec, and your choice of tequila. Each drink contains 2.5 ounces of tequila, and the house margarita is only $7. If you’ve graduated from tequila slammer to connoisseur, you might want to order a $9, $12, or $14 tasting flight, each of which is accompanied by lime sorbet and a shot of tomato-based sangrita.

To ready ourselves for the drive home, we ordered a round of desserts. Within minutes, a plate of hot sopapillas dusted with sugar and cinnamon arrived. Seconds later, a delicate Mexican s’more—with house-made marshmallows and graham crackers, peanut butter fudge, Mexican chocolate ice cream, and cajeta and pomegranate sauces—was set before us.

Steve Hartnett passed away while I was writing this review. Not only was he a consummate professional, he was generous with his restaurant employees, investors, and business staff. I met him in 2002 when he was part of a group of restaurateurs I traveled with to Uzbekistan to prepare dinner for 2,000 soldiers at an airbase. Over the years, we had many long, sometimes heated, discussions about the restaurant business. He was a perfectionist, a philosopher, and a true entrepreneur.

Two days before Hartnett died, I wrote him a note: “You finally hit the culinary nail on the head. Mi Dia is the finest restaurant you’ve ever built. Yes, you’ve done some really nice places, but the vibe, the chef, and the quality of food at Mi Dia shine above all of the others. Please don’t tell Gabriel I am writing a positive review.” Somehow, he did.

For more information about Mi Dia from Scratch, visit our restaurant guide.