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Houston, TX 77019
Region: River Oaks
Blood orange mojito: $8
Tortilla soup with meatballs: $3.95
Medium guacamole: $6.95
Fajitas and jalape˝o sausage: $19.95
Fish tacos (2): $18.95
Jon Paul Plate: $12.95
From the get-go, restaurant critics oohed about the ambitious, upscale Mexican menu, while society columnists aahed at the parade of local celebs and VIPs elbowing their way in to see and be seen. Owner Jon Paul, who earned his stripes as a front-of-the-house lieutenant in Tony Vallone's restaurant brigade for a decade and a half, seemed to have done quite well for himself with this solo venture. As one reviewer put it, people went there because people went there -- pretty, popular and powerful people, that is.
Now, six months later, the hot, hot, hot has cooled off. Sabor is no more.
In its place comes 1308 Cantina -- also operated by Jon Paul, also serving Mexican food, and also offering Sabor's innovative drinks, including a blood orange mojito and a pomegranate margarita. But the change is more than nominal. Where Sabor was trendy, 1308 Cantina goes back to basics. Gone are ambitious dishes like octopus tostadas, lobster ceviche and huitlacoche (corn fungus) quesadillas. Replacing them are the usual Tex-Mex staples -- fajitas, tamales and enchiladas. It's pretty much the same fare you'll find at, say, the El Tiempo Cantina restaurants. This is no surprise since Jon Paul's new partners are the Laurenzo Family, the El Tiempo owners who trace their culinary roots back to the original Ninfa's.
At 1308, fajitas anchor a meat-heavy menu that offers seemingly endless variations of protein combinations. Some of the pairings seem a little, well, strange. Or maybe strained? For instance, jalapeño sausage andjumbo shrimp? The sausage was tasty on its own, and a trio of quick-grilled shrimp succulent. But the respective flavors certainly didn't complement one another.
Traditionalists will be far better served by ordering something like the Jon Paul Plate, a combo platter that offers a chicken tamal slathered in green chile sauce, a crispy beef taco and a fajita-larded enchilada. While the primary components are all first-rate, what really makes the plate work are the side orders of faux paella and smoky, deep-flavored charro beans. They come with most main dishes and are almost good enough to stand on their own. You could, for instance, just order a cup (which is bowl-sized!) of the sturdy tortilla soup, add those rice and beans and have a very satisfactory (not to mention very cheap) meal. Big spenders, of course, are still welcome to pony up $28 for a combo plate of baby back ribs and shrimp.
While there are flashes of innovation here and there -- like an enchilada dish made with provolone cheese, a nod to the Laurenzos' Italian heritage -- most of the 1308 Cantina bill of fare is standardized Tex-Mex. In other words, if Sabor was a feather boa, 1308 Cantina is a good cloth coat.
Sabor's transformation into 1308 Cantina is another reminder of how mercurial the restaurant business can be -- and, perhaps, how the tried and true will usually win out over the trendy. It's probably unfair to ask what went "wrong" with Sabor since that suggests an outright failure, and that's not exactly what happened. It's probably better to ask what went...different.
One industry insider recalls that when Sabor first opened, management gave the employees a rah-rah talk, telling them the game plan was "to put Hugo's out of business." Hugo's, of course, is the successful Mexican restaurant that specializes in the high-end, exotic comida that Sabor also planned to offer. The menu at Sabor certainly reflected that culinary ambition, but those fanciful dishes just weren't prepared very well. No amount of Jon Paul's famous schmoozing could make up for an inconsistent kitchen.
That's certainly not the case with 1308 Cantina. The food comes out of the kitchen fast and hot, the portions are plentiful and the preparation is reliable.
Most restaurateurs are loath to discuss particulars about partners and investors, and Jon Paul is no exception. But he's also inherently eager to please, so Jon Paul -- that's his first and last names, but they blend into a single professional moniker -- took a few moments away from preparing for Sunday brunch to take part in this curious conversation.
Q. You opened Sabor with Marco Wiles, chef and owner of the popular Italian restaurant Da Marco, as your partner...
A. Not a partner, exactly. More like a consultant. We're friends from working in the Vallone organization. So when he was getting his new place Dolce Vita open, I helped out. Then he helped me out with Sabor.
Q. But he had a financial interest in it?
A. He had an interest in seeing it do well.
Q. He created the original menu?
A. He played an important part in it.
Q. Apparently the more adventurous dishes on that menu weren't working?A. I'd say they were working in terms of being wonderful. But after a while, we could see that it was the Tex-Mex dishes that people were wanting to order. And, my gosh, there's nothing wrong with that. That's what the masses are eating, and in this business you have to feed the masses or you won't survive.
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