Friday, June 9, 2023 Jun 9, 2023
75° F Dallas, TX
Restaurant Review

The Coronation of King Carlos

El Carlos Elegante is the crowning achievement of Duro Hospitality’s burgeoning empire. And it has the elevated Mexican fare to prove it.
By | |Photography By Elizabeth Lavin
Eclectic Company: Designers Corbin and Ross See were inspired by the idea of a rural hacienda handed down and redecorated many times. Elizabeth Lavin

The founders of Italian spot The Charles have opened a new Mexican restaurant, and they call it El Carlos Elegante. You’d be forgiven for worrying that a company that names its new business by simply translating the old business name into Spanish would lack imagination. But Duro Hospitality’s fourth restaurant—after The Charles, Sister, and Cafe Duro—is also its best. El Carlos Elegante has the same self-consciously clever food and over-the-top hospitality as its siblings, but its take on traditional Mexican lifts the brand to new heights. 

El Carlos’ Riverfront Boulevard location once housed another Mexican restaurant, Los Lupes, which closed in late 2019 after 47 years. Unfortunately, a real estate flipper got his hands on the property in the interim, gutting the interior and turning a historic space into a blank canvas. So designers Corbin and Ross See took their cues not from Los Lupes but from the idea of a country hacienda successively redecorated by multiple generations of one family.

“Think about towns in Mexico,” says Benji Homsey, one of the restaurateurs behind Duro Hospitality. “You walk down these streets and see kind of nondescript buildings, and then you open the doors and see these beautiful residential courtyards, with all this light and detail. Things you wouldn’t see from the outside.” 

That pleasant surprise is replicated at El Carlos, where the drab Riverfront façade conceals a lavish interior, even a patio room with a retractable roof. You’ll encounter a small shrine by the host stand, floral-patterned tiles on the walls, copper tabletops, and enormous paintings of clothes and mustaches without people attached.

The gawking continues when the food arrives. The first menu section, “one-hitters,” is a collection of tiny nibbles meant to be eaten in one or two bites. They’re fantastic. Perfectly round crab croquettes hum with flavors of corn, ricotta, and Oaxaca cheese. Beef tartare is folded into tiny, crispy tacos, just big enough to hold a green onion garnish on top. The beef is chilled to pair with a dollop of caviar that holds the onion in place.

Tuna belly—more richly marbled with fat than the toro at many sushi restaurants—drapes over a tiny tostada like cheese hanging off the edge of a burger. I loved the avocado cream and pickled salmon roe on top but could have done without the gooseberry. No such complaints about a tightly composed bite of grilled eggplant puréed with ajo blanco (an almond-based sauce) and spooned into a petite phyllo tart. 

By the way, if you’re gluten-free, that eggplant tart was the only time that I tasted any flour other than corn. Masa is the specialty at El Carlos, and the restaurant nixtamalizes its own corn in-house, forming the result into tortillas, tostadas, tamales, molotes, tlacoyos, and tetelas.

“What’s masa?” we overheard a customer ask one night. If El Carlos can educate Dallas diners on the joys of masa, it will forever have a place in my heart. Nixtamalized tortillas made from heirloom corn, like these, have a vibrant freshness. Your fingers smell like corn after you’ve held them. These aren’t just vehicles to carry meat and salsa; they’re stars on their own. 

The mushroom tetela might sound like the least sexy masa vehicle on this menu, but it’s my favorite: a perfectly crisp triangle of corn batter, mushrooms, and ricotta surrounded by a spicy moat of sauce made with huitlacoche, maitake mushrooms, garlic, shallots, and cream. The combination of heat and fresh herbs, rich cheese and cutting spice, creamy sauce and griddled tetela, is perfectly balanced cooking.

El Carlos is a party spot. You come here with friends, not lovers.

I’d say the same for the chorizo molotes, but they were quite salty on one of my visits. Still, the salsa roja is spicy and acidic, the chorizo itself is not greasy or heavy, and the molotes are topped with fried, dehydrated nopales. A tlacoyo is a bigger-format masa shape, a wide paddle of duck confit and mushrooms, lightened by a dab of lemony crème fraiche. And there’s a build-your-own tostada dish featuring beef aguachile, a strip loin dressed in a well-balanced mixture of soy sauce, Fresno peppers, and grilled red pearl onion petals.

The Charles serves a nightly special called “The Pie,” a potpie with ever-changing ingredients and self-conscious quotation marks. At El Carlos, that menu slot is occupied by “El Machete,” a rendition of the classic quesadilla form named for its long, skinny shape. “El Machete” may not change often—it featured lengua this winter—but it is terrific. The tender beef and Oaxaca cheese are folded into that flavorful long tortilla, after which you can build your own bite by adding pickled red and white onions or a salsa borracha with guajillo peppers and mezcal.

After your masa, you’ll want some veggies. The Tijuana Caesar salad might come slightly overdressed, but there’s bold flavor and spice throughout from the dressing and the crispy chorizo crumble. (A quibble: since Caesar salads were invented in Tijuana, using the word “Tijuana” to denote a Mexican twist is silly.) 

Sikil pak, a fiercely spicy Mayan pumpkin-seed dip, is domesticated out of its flamethrowing ways and served with roasted eggplant, yellow squash, cucumber, celery, and cherry tomatoes. A side order of roasted sweet potatoes comes with an unexpected flavor pairing: grapefruit. I like those plates, but I love best the dish of chargrilled okra and shishito peppers, mixed with cilantro and a nutty salsa macha and garnished with scoops of a crème fraiche infused with hoja santa and epazote.

El Carlos’ biggest surprise is its steak. I’ve gotten jaded about restaurant steak, which at its best is generally a nice cut of meat, seasoned simply, grilled, and served a la carte or with a sauce. The pandemic taught me that I can do that at home by purchasing top-quality meat and using a cast-iron skillet, a thermometer, and half a stick of butter.

Here, though, they offer a picanha cut that makes me want to go out for steak. It’s cooked to medium rare and served with a yellow mole sauce that includes charred carrots. To brighten up each bite, there’s also an herbaceous slaw of chayote, nuts, and lime. All three elements go perfectly with each other.

Another showstopper is an osso buco “carnitas” veal shank with a peppery sauce. It’s so tender that you can pull meat off the bone with your fork, fold it into tortillas with the accompanying guacamole and radishes, and devour a terrific little taco. In truth, the shank, served whole, is more of an homage to carnitas than the real deal, since it’s made with veal and served whole. But the flavorings are traditional—guajillo and costeño peppers, orange, garlic, onion—and so is the generous use of lard.

Like The Charles, El Carlos is least strong at dessert. The Mexican chocolate mousse is straightforwardly fine, and it comes hidden under shards of meringue and a drizzle of chile oil. On my first visit, I tried a dish billed as a “cherry tamal”; actually, it was a coffee tamal, with mezcal-soaked cherries on top, along with a scoop of ice cream and a sauce derived from atole, the traditional Mexican hot drink with masa and cinnamon. The tamal had a gritty, rough texture, as if it were fat-free, which only made the cherries taste squishier by contrast. The coffee flavor mostly came across as bitter.

On a return trip, the dish was much improved. For one thing, the name had been corrected. For another, the tamal was tender rather than dried out, a pleasure rather than a chore. 

El Carlos is not cheap; on each visit I spent between $120 and $160 per guest. For your trouble, the restaurant sends out freebies. I learned after I got some that this wasn’t special treatment. According to conversations with friends and colleagues, everyone is getting one or two free dishes as a surprise. 

“Whenever we have an opportunity to, we want to show people what we’re doing and the way we like to eat,” says Chas Martin, the restaurateur who lends his name to El Carlos. He gives two examples: sending out extra shared plates to a table that still follows the appetizer-main formula, and allowing a server who thinks their table didn’t order the best side dish to surprise them with it as a treat.

At any rate, at my income level, El Carlos is a special occasion dinner. But a specific special occasion. With its tight seating and very loud acoustics—those tiled walls don’t exactly absorb sound—El Carlos is also a party spot. It’s a celebratory restaurant, not a romantic one. You come here with friends, not lovers.

The Charles is like that, too: loud, boisterous, extroverted. I don’t know quite why I enjoy El Carlos so much more. Maybe it’s the kitchen’s teamwork, a collaboration between corporate culinary director Jared Harms and co-chefs de cuisine Sergio Aguirre and Ivan Aguilar. Maybe it’s the less pedestrian-hostile location or the warmer, homier dining room. Maybe it’s the “Negroni-ish,” a Negroni-meets-margarita tequila cocktail so perfect I’ve started attempting to replicate them at home.

Most likely, though, the Duro guys have simply hit a new level of excellence. Other Dallas restaurateurs have tried the “modern Mexican” formula over the years. Some of them failed to attract customers, while others failed to understand the basics of Mexican cooking. El Carlos Elegante, with its traditional roots and creative panache, shows what the genre can be. And by putting on such a theatrical show, it proves that you can back up style with substance. El Carlos Elegante? That’s so Dallas. And it’s so good. 

This story originally appeared in the March issue of D Magazine with the headline, “King Charles. Write to [email protected].


Brian Reinhart

Brian Reinhart

View Profile
Brian Reinhart became D Magazine's dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.