Forget people-watching. The new restaurant sport of choice is car-watching at the valet stand. At The Mexican, an ultra stylish new spot in the Design District, the valet lot at the front door is reserved for Dallas’ finest. I’ve seen two Ferraris side by side, two Bentleys, a Maserati, and a Porsche 911 with aftermarket matte black paint. Less beautiful automobiles are driven down the block, away from prying eyes. Even Teslas get the boot. When my decade-old Ford Focus rolls up, with its rattling struts, wonky transmission, and bird-turd-splattered hood, eyewitnesses probably expect Lieutenant Columbo to slouch out in a trench coat.
All these drivers in all these cars are pulling up to a grand, impressive edifice with its back turned to Turtle Creek Boulevard. That back isn’t turned in an inhospitable way (unless you’re a pedestrian or cyclist); it’s an architectural choice to add a feeling of surprise to the interior’s delights.
Step through The Mexican’s imposing double doors and splendiferous visuals await. There is a long, rectangular bar that’s perfect for seeing and being seen. A wall of tequila and mezcal bottles kept behind glass like works of art, though some are quite cheap. Intricate tilework and wood fittings and zigzagging geometric designs on the walls and ceilings. At least two large main dining rooms and three private dining rooms, two different sets of bathrooms, and two patios—one traditional and the other a cigar room where the liquor bottles seem to defy gravity and hover on the ceiling.
There are countless exceptional details, such as little peepholes between the bar and dining room, perfect for spying, and the tasteful coverings over the floor-to-ceiling windows, which keep the space warmly but not blindingly lit. The ladies’ bathroom has a fashion-style runway.
If you are wondering why this review is lavishing attention on the visuals, vibes, and valet scene without yet considering The Mexican’s food, I have bad news: the restaurant’s owners did the same thing.
At a time when Mexican food is reaching new levels of creativity and craft in Texas, this kitchen is stubbornly reactionary. Culinary innovations at The Mexican include guacamole, queso, tortilla soup, chopped salad, shrimp enchiladas, and grilled chicken. But, hey, the leches cake goes to cuatro instead of tres.
The Mexican is surprisingly light on Mexican food. There are no moles, no nopales, no chapulines or other insects, no huaraches or tlayudas, no flautas, no squash blossoms, no calabacitas, no tetelas or molotes, no carnitas, no tamales. There is no huitlacoche, no birria, no jicama, no pozole, no chamorro, no menudo, no pescado Veracruzano, no fideo, no cabrito, no pepián, no pan dulce. There is nothing al pastor.
It gets worse. Restaurants such as Revolver Taco Lounge, José, and La Mina, as well as pop-ups such as Molino Olōyō, make their own corn tortillas from scratch by nixtamalizing heirloom corn. The resulting tortilla rainbow has thrilled Dallasites’ eyes and taste buds. At The Mexican, the corn tortillas are made from Maseca, a product of the world’s largest corn flour processing corporation. It’s the stuff used in most commoditized tortillas, including Mission brand, which is part of the same international conglomerate.
Many taquerias use Maseca. Some add their own flavorings to put individual twists on it, such as El Rincón del Maíz in Garland, which has corn tortillas flavored with guajillo peppers, cilantro, beets, or chocolate.
The Mexican does not have any flavored tortillas. By themselves, they taste and chew like pancakes, and their sugary burden of preservatives drags down every dish in which a tortilla appears. I took numerous bites of tacos where the first thing to hit my tongue was a weird, malty, chemical sweetness—and then, once that was out of the way, the fillings proved delicious. At one point, I dumped a taco out onto my plate and ate it with a fork.
His restaurant is, bizarrely, both a bid for high-end greatness and one long product ad.
All of this gives the impression that The Mexican’s creators spent all their money on interior design and then forgot to hire a chef. Nothing that follows dispels this idea. (There is, however, an executive chef: Christopher Tunnell, an Oklahoman who has traveled the United States cooking in hotels and casinos.)
Take the free chips and flight of five salsas, part of Dallas’ ongoing arms race to see who can serve the most. Although they’re arranged “from mildest to hottest,” only one is hot, the watery mixture of lime juice and piquín peppers. That and a chile de árbol salsa are quite nice, but the “aguachile de truffle,” a mixture of truffle oil, lime, and something orange, is like a Netflix dating show: so disgusting it’s fascinating. The salsa tastes like lime, Parmesan, and Windex. It’s one of the top 10 weirdest liquids in Texas, right up there with Martin House’s buffalo wings–flavored beer and the Trinity River in springtime.
(Remember, please, that most “truffle oil” is a chemical concoction that rarely contains any trace of actual truffle. The Mexican’s preferred brand lists artificial flavors and real white truffle as ingredients, in that order.)
This alarming sauce reappears, perhaps different in formulation but not in result, on aguachile de rib-eye, an appetizer that douses lightly seared wagyu rib-eye cap in enough truffle oil that I’m surprised the meat doesn’t cook through abrasion. Order that and coliflor asada, a dish of mushy wet cauliflower that is allegedly roasted, and your mouth will be so full of truffle agent that it will burn like an industrial cleaner. I felt like I’d drunk a bottle of cologne. For a few minutes, nothing else had any taste.
You may well be wondering what The Mexican is if it’s not a Mexican restaurant (or a truffle oil commercial). It is a steakhouse. There are seven cuts of steak, most of them described as wagyu. There are the upscale seafood dishes you’d expect from a steakhouse, including a Chilean sea bass that got me excited—it’s described as pescado zarandeado, an actual Mexican dish—before I discovered that the fish is plated on Swiss chard greens so vinegary and so salty that they’re as if Southern grandmothers cooked collards as punishment for troublemaking kids.
Our filet mignon was cooked “a la roca,” which the menu promised would arrive “on a hot lava rock.” This sparked the imagination. Will it sizzle like fajitas? Will it look like Japanese ishiyaki hot rocks? Nope: the enormous, hulking black brick serves as a gently warmed plate. I’d bet a Pacifico beer it will leave the menu after waiters start spraining their wrists.
Happily, The Mexican does serve one classic Mexican dish: tacos. The barbacoa appetizer is a set of four tacos for $19, with flavorful meat on gently grilled tortillas, served with salsa verde. There are at least 50 good places in Dallas to order this dish. The Mexican’s innovation is to have a server put the meat in the tacos tableside. Same goes for the queso fundido: it arrives all bubbly in the skillet, and then a server stretches and tugs it like a dough and plops little scoops into tortillas.
The carne asada tacos, for $7 each, taste like the kind you get for $2 each.
After my first meal at the restaurant, I met a friend who’d gone separately. He asked me, “Did they also give you only one lime wedge for a whole taco plate?”
There are some winners. I childishly enjoyed the cheesy mashed potatoes. The chicharrón de rib-eye is a generous bowl of good guacamole, garnished with crisp bits of fried beef. Lobster elotes are soupy and expensive ($28) but taste fine. The cuatro leches cake is decent, and the chocolate cake is nearly good. It starts well with guajillo pepper cream and pepitas for spice and crunch, but then the whole thing is drowned in a chocolate syrup so cloyingly sweet that we turned our slice upside down and ate it from the bottom.
I loved the tacos culichi (named for Culiacán, Sinaloa), which feature red snapper chopped up and fried in tiny, crispy puffs. They are like fish tacos mated with a New England fried seafood basket. Mushroom tacos cover their lack of meat with a fiery salsa that’s got as much flavor as the rest of the menu put together. (Truffle oil doesn’t count.) And although the shrimp tacos have a rather ugly dark gray sauce, they’ve also got a pleasing creamy sweetness. Plus, sweet shrimp harmonizes with sweet waffle tortillas.
Oh, yes. About those tortillas. Co-owner Roberto González Alcalá—the eponymous Mexican—is a former CEO of Gruma, the parent company of Maseca and Mission Tortillas. His restaurant is, bizarrely, both a bid for high-end greatness and one long product placement ad for cheap bags of industrial flour. It’s like going to the fanciest Italian restaurant in town and discovering that the cooks are back there popping jars of Prego.
None of this makes sense except as the product of wealthy businessmen who believe their own hype. Would you spend millions of dollars building a palatial fine-dining destination with two patios and a cigar room if you had invented Tuna Helper?
I forgot to mention the $250 margarita named after teetotaling socialist revolutionary Pancho Villa. It’s another sign that The Mexican badly wants your attention, and I already regret giving it so much of mine.
This story originally ran in the July issue of D Magazine with the title, “Masa of None.” Email [email protected].