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There were a couple of striking-looking women sitting at the bar at Sabor, one of the trendiest restaurants in town. They were drinking some of the restaurant's signature frozen cocktails and talking about the Astros' prospects for next year. I ordered a pomegranate margarita and joined in the conversation. To make my drink, the spiky-haired bartender poured a couple of shots of inky-looking pomegranate concentrate into a stemmed cocktail glass. Then he added a large scoop of frozen margarita that looked like lemon sherbet.
When I stirred the slowly melting drink, it created a psychedelic pattern of purple and yellow swirls. Sitting there on the bar, the margarita was as mesmerizing as a lava lamp. And when I picked it up and drank it, it created a head-numbing rush of slushy, exotic fruit flavors with a nice tequila jolt.
I ordered some red snapper ceviche, the women got some guacamole and we all agreed that Roger Clemens was not coming back.
The upscale margaritas at Sabor come with those classic complimentary cocktail accompaniments, a basket of tortilla chips and a bowl of hot sauce -- only at Sabor, the chips are made from flour tortillas and the salsa is made with the finest roasted tomatoes. Sabor's menu includes such local favorites as fish tacos and Caesar salads. Then there's innovations such as lobster ceviche and duck carnitas.
Jon Paul is the former maitre d' at Tony's. After 16 years in the "prim and proper" world of fine-dining restaurants, he decided to do something "funner" when it came time to open his own place. "My concept is modern Mexican with some Tex-Mex thrown in," he says.
Drinks represent approximately 40 percent of the restaurant's revenue. "Mixed drinks are where you make your money," Jon Paul says. "A lot of my drinks are colorful, fruity drinks -- margaritas and mojitos. We don't sell much Scotch and water." The restaurant doesn't sell much wine, either.
After years of selling wine at a steep markup, Jon Paul shies away from this traditional revenue source for upscale restaurants. "You buy a bottle of wine at a restaurant for 80 dollars, and then you go to Randalls or Kroger and see the same wine for 30 dollars less, and you feel ripped off. There is no reason to gouge people," Jon Paul says.
In fact, the markup on mixed drinks is even higher than the markup on wine, but there's a difference. The bottle of wine you drink at a restaurant tastes the same at home -- exotic cocktails are hard to duplicate.
Latino food and cocktails dominate the casual dining market in Houston. The food may be Tex-Mex or modern Mexican, but the format is always the same -- a dining room that's laid out around a prominent central bar area. Call it the contemporary cantina, if you like.
A few days later and a few miles away, I had another frozen margarita at Chuy's on Westheimer. The pale green slush was so thickly frozen that the straw stood straight up in the center of the glass. I ate the first few bites the way you eat a snow cone, scooping off slush with my upper lip to create a mouthful. Chuy's margaritas are a Houston standard: potent, not too sweet and served in large glasses.
It was Chuy's "Green Chile Festival," when the restaurant roasts green chiles and offers a special menu featuring them. I got an item called "tuna tacos," which had two corn tortillas buried under a pile of lettuce, tomatoes and green chile salsa with two big filets of yellowfin tuna grilled medium rare on top. You had to eat some with a knife and fork before you could make a taco out of it, so maybe they should call it a taco salad. But the tuna was exceptional. What a surprise to see rare tuna at Chuy's!
The dish was designed by an old friend of mine named David Garrido, who joined Chuy's earlier this year after working for more than a decade as a chef at such landmark fine-dining establishments as Jeffrey's in Austin and Routh Street in Dallas. "I love fine dining, but you can't eat fine dining every day," he says.
"Anyway, developing new concepts for Chuy's is a lot more fun," he continues. "I am working on what I call a 'taco bar.'"
Does Garrido consider the concept a major restaurant trend in the making? "I think this is the next evolution of Texas food -- a bar with Mexican snacks; you don't even call it a restaurant anymore," he says.
Garrido, who coauthored the cookbook Nuevo Tex-Mexwith me, doesn't much care what you call his "taco bar" food. "Nuevo Tex-Mex, Modern Mexican, it doesn't matter what you call it," he says. "And don't get me wrong, at Chuy's there will always be a place for an old-fashioned combination plate covered with melted cheese. But there's also going to be a place for tuna tacos."