It's a rare occasion when you get to enjoy a favorite dish from a long-closed restaurant, prepared once again by the chef himself. But that's exactly what took place this past Tuesday and Wednesday as chef L.J. Wiley and his old kitchen crew from Yelapa Playa Mexicana hosted four pop-up services at Kitchen Incubator, Wiley himself sporting his old chef's blacks from the restaurant.
Over lunch and dinner, fans of the restaurant -- which closed in October 2011 after an all-too-brief two-year run -- flooded in to sample old favorites, like Wiley's so-called "real guacamole," and to reacquaint themselves with the type of modern Mexican cuisine that made Wiley and Yelapa such a cult classic. I saw a few people thumb thoughtfully through an old menu that Wiley had brought with him as they waited, reminiscing about meals past.
The "Yelapagain" pop-up lunches and dinners may have been only a two-day affair, but Wiley has more up his sleeve now that the Kinkaid graduate is back in home Houston after a "tour" in New York City, spent working in restaurants such as Aurora and Emporio. And although Wiley learned a lot about Italian food during his nearly two-year stay in New York, it's tacos that brought him back to Houston.
"I'm nuts about tacos," Wiley laughed, as he prepped a dish of real guacamole for diners at Wednesday's Yelapagain dinner and explained the nature of his new venture: Taco Nuts.
"I'm starting a taco truck," Wiley stated. That simple.
Wiley's been in the market for a good truck for a few months now, but has been picky about finding the right one. "I turned down a truck a few days ago," he said, but has made huge strides in fleshing out its eventual menu.
"There will be a main menu of tacos flanked by other dishes," Wiley explained. While the tacos will be fairly straightforward (for the Wonka-esque Wiley), those flanks will be more high-concept.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that while there won't be a full restaurant backing Wiley in this new pursuit, his food won't be any less labor-intensive nor any less inventive than it was at Yelapa. Alongside the classic Yelapa dishes, Wiley also served an array of new tacos which functioned as a taste-test, with instant feedback from diners.
For the duck tacos Wiley showcased at Yelapagain, the red mole coating the tender shreds of duck required three separate preparations of more than 20 ingredients before the mole was even combined into one stock pot.
"I think we'll put those on the truck," Wiley smiled as one diner after passed their empty plates back to him over a metal counter that functioned as both pass and dining table inside Kitchen Incubator's massive commercial kitchen.
For each dish -- duck tacos, hibiscus-accented ceviche, almaco jack on a ruddy mound of kimchi fried rice -- Wiley had a finishing touch before expediting the plates out. A flick of the wrist and julienned slices of red jalapeño appeared on top of tacos, as Wiley grinned ear-to-ear at being back in his element.
Next to him, former sous chef Vincent Huynh chuckled at Wiley's enthusiasm. Huynh took two nights off from current employer Revival Market -- where he's the prepared foods manager -- to come and work at his old chef's side, executing the cooked dishes while Wiley worked his magic on the intricate ceviches and guacamoles that defined his cuisine at Yelapa.
"Can't you guys just get back together again?" I joked. Huynh laughed.
"I'll have to get more nights off from this guy," he said, gesturing to boss Ryan Pera, chef and owner of both Revival Market and upcoming restaurant Coltivare, which is slated to open later this year.
Wiley isn't the only Yelapa alumnus with big plans, after all -- last fall, Pera and co-owner Morgan Weber announced that Huynh would oversee Coltivare's daily operations.
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"You'll be blown away by what this guy does at Coltivare," Pera responded with a big grin. "Just wait."