If Larry Foles and Guy Villavaso ever tire of opening their own restaurants, they could just lead seminars in how to create a successful concept. And they could probably do it with their eyes closed.
Identify a hot trend. Connect that to a hungry segment of the market. Package with care and a modicum of flair. Develop an approachable menu with a touch of creativity. Keep a close eye on the shop and swing away. It’s less a bold grip-it-and-rip-it driver full of passion and daring and more of a safe 3-wood right down the middle of the fairway. But, ask anyone who’s played golf, and they’ll tell you that’s still a tough shot to hit when the pressure is on.
Foles and Villavaso did it with Southwestern cuisine at Z’Tejas, the ’90s swagger of seafood-and-steakhouse concept Eddie V’s (which they sold for tens of millions), upmarket burgers at Hopdoddy and the comfort and sizzle of pasta and steaks at the Italian-inspired Red Ash, among others.
ATX Cocina downtown finds the duo — certain first-ballot inductees into my imaginary Austin Restaurant Hall of Fame — tapping into the modern Mexican trend that extends from Broken Spanish in Los Angeles to Cosme in New York, one which has its Austin roots firmly planted up the street at La Condesa.
While the previous concepts from Foles and Villavaso were fairly easy targets, this move is a little trickier. Comfort food, Southwestern and steakhouses each have their rich backstories, but the traditions and history of Mexican cuisine and culture require more understanding and respect. You face heightened scrutiny and the dangers of cultural appropriation.
A line on ATX Cocina’s website gives one pause before even entering the restaurant: “We have taken traditional Mexican dishes and elevated them with modern approaches and techniques.”
I understand the intent, and one could probably find a similar description of the approach on other restaurants’ websites, but the word “elevates” should probably be thrown on the culinary vernacular scrap heap along with “food porn.” It assumes the cuisine requires lifting up to meet a loftier standard. If you’ve visited a tlacoyo stand on the streets of Mexico City, fine dining restaurant Los Danzantes in Oaxaca or an abuelita’s kitchen in Puebla, you know that Mexican food was already admirable before chefs in the states got their hands on it.
But, if we give the copywriter and restaurateurs the benefit of the doubt, we could go with the idea that “elevating” here doesn’t mean making it better but giving it a platform that demands a new appraisal while abolishing the tired tropes about Tex-Mex combo platters and rice and beans, inspiring deeper appreciation of Mexico’s bounty and the ways in which those ingredients can sing when unencumbered by grease and lard.
ATX Cocina is wise to use corn — which they import from Masienda, a company that sources heirloom, non-GMO product from farming communities in Mexico — as one of its foundations. If you want to build a standout modern Mexican restaurant, start with the masa. Not nixtamalizing your own corn and making masa in-house? Step aside.
And the gluten-free restaurant often gets it right with the corn — though they initially got it wrong with their tostadas, which when baked delivered robust flavor but had the toughness and brittleness of a Topsider left out in the sun. But a recent move to flash frying rendered the canoe-shaped tostadas lighter while still allowing the vegetable’s mellow sweetness and twang to shine beneath a generous shower of lump crab meat, fresh herbs and cherry tomatoes that pop and squirt ($18). The ingredients separate it from a run-of-the-mill ceviche scooped by a tortilla chip; the tuna version ($18) with crispy onions and morita aioli pays clever homage to Contramar in Mexico City.
The corn also makes for pliant but sturdy tortillas that squeeze gooey oxtail quesadillas tingly with pickled jalapeños and marinated cabbage, a perfect bar snack ($12). But the corn isn’t magic. It couldn’t save queso fundido ($11), as rubbery as a dessert of fig panna cotta ($8), or a dry and ragged sope ($14) that cupped cochinita pibil and overly salted beans fortunately cut with the acidic lash of pickled onions. And it couldn’t transform a trio of salsas ($5), of which only the nutty macha would garner a return order.
The kitchen is led by executive chef Kevin Taylor, who is a veteran of El Vez Mexican in Philadelphia, one of the jewels in empire builder Stephen Starr’s crown, a restaurateur Foles and Villavaso undoubtedly admire.
The keys to this modern Mexican movement are precision, respect and creative reimagining of Mexican ingredients. With those as the guiding principles, you could say that ATX Cocina has about as many misses as hits.
Where the approach works: The subtle nuttiness and culinary exploration of a very rare white mole, or mole de novia. Here it lightens the mild piquancy of a perfectly roasted chili-rubbed chicken with russet skin (at $26 the menu’s most economical entree). It is an uncommon treat to find the mole on a menu, though the excitement was slightly tempered by a server who described the sauce as “like regular mole, but white.”
The interpretation of Mexican cuisine also hits its mark with a gargantuan and velvety lamb shank that soaks in the dusky fruit of a guajillo pepper broth in which plump blue corn dumplings bathe ($32).
Where the approach feels mailed-in and expected: dry duck carnitas swimming in a pool of grease, a $28 make-your-own-tacos situation that one assumes nods to New York’s Cosme but slops and sizzles onto the table like oily fajitas served at any number of Tex-Mex standbys in town. To make matters worse, the name “patos locos tacos” sounds like something ripped from the pages of Senor Frog’s, less an homage to Mexican cuisine than a cartooning of it. In that same vein, a rum-and-mezcal cocktail is called the “Gwa-De-Loop-E.”
But, more often than not, the main dishes ride the middle line between exciting and disappointing. Grilled shrimp warmed with brown butter ($30) and a barbacoa beef short rib that has its richness cut by jalapeño-chayote escabeche ($34) are fine but in no way revelatory. The tomahawk pibil pork chop was tender, hiding some salty rewards closer to the bone, and the (slightly) pickled pineapple was a nice touch, but at $64 (priced at $2 per ounce), the only thing that seemed elevated about it was the price. And, for the same price, I’d rather have 25 al pastor tacos cut from the trompo at Taquitos Ravi in Laredo; they’re juicier, brighter and more supple.
The pork chop speaks to the largesse you would expect from the founders of Eddie V’s, one in which the moneyed clientele seems to revel, as exhibited by the envious couple next to me at the bar that lustily eyed my chop and the guy next to me at another meal who ordered the “el jefe” bone-in rib-eye ($64) on three consecutive visits. I know this because he told me from his close proximity on the long and odd booth seats that connect, servicing adjoining tables.
Maybe those folks would also enjoy the gauche buffoonery of the Hundy, a $100 margarita made with overpriced Casa Dragones tequila. Not only is the idea of a $100 margarita extremely dated (hello, 1997), but the appearance of the silly drink and a bunch of agave spirits made with diffusers undercuts the seriousness of a mezcal list that also includes standouts like El Jolgorio and Mezcal Vago. Just when I think I’ve settled into a comfortable gaze with the thoughtfulness of ATX Cocina, I bump into a funhouse mirror.
One thing undeniably modern about ATX Cocina (it’s certainly not the name, which reads like it sat on a creative vision board for about a decade) is the design. Soaring barreled ceilings, wooden geometric patterns above the packed bar and desert and coastal shades of brown add elements of sophistication and coolness to a cavernous space that is quite loud but where the banter from two tables over is indistinguishable.
The style and some of the more thoughtful and well-executed dishes represent building blocks that might well serve as hopeful signs for ATX Cocina, representing a small chorus that needs more voices in Austin. But, when the restaurant plays it sloppy or staid, I begin to wonder if it is burgeoning promise or just another well-packaged concept.
After several visits, I’m still not sure. It certainly meets the needs and serves the desires of its targeted clientele, but I don’t know that it is advancing or reframing the conversation around Mexican cuisine. Not everything need be a class in culinary anthropology; some places can just exist to serve some pretty solid food and a good time. But ATX Cocina walks right up to the edge of being something truly interesting.
As I stood outside one evening and watched the slick, valeted cars depart from the pricey restaurant and turn west onto Cesar Chavez Street from San Antonio Street (no small irony), I examined the restaurant’s logo on a brick wall. It has the boxiness of pre-Columbian design but none of the character or movement. I interpreted it as vaguely Mexican but not fully authentic. Something about it just felt a little off.
110 San Antonio St. 512-263-2322, atxcocina.com
Rating: 7 out of 10
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Prices: Appetizers, $11-$14. Crudo, $14-$19. Entrees, $26-$64. Desserts, $5-$9.
Expect to pay: $65 per person (without tax, tip or alcohol)
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
Notes: The restaurant’s menu is completely gluten-free. Valet parking is available for $8 in the service driveway just north of Cesar Chavez Street.
The Bottom Line: ATX Cocina blends hits and misses with sophistication in its attempt to deliver modern Mexican.