It might be a fair statement that the merits of a Tex-Mex restaurant can be roughly gauged by the merits of its margarita. For better and for worse, this is certainly true of Moderno Tacos + Tex Mex, a bright, endearingly casual new spot on the western banks of Beltway 8. Bolstered by freshly squeezed lime juice -- the press is proudly displayed behind the bar -- the margaritas here could easily make a short list of the city's best, if they didn't run so perilously close to over-sweet. For a few dollars more, you can opt for a better class of tequila to be shaken into yours; it's nice to see quality offerings such as Tapatio sitting alongside the usual suspects. You might even opt for a nicely woody reposado from Tequila Ocho for a duskier spin on the classic. Perhaps you can persuade the bar to strain yours over fresh ice -- the better to control melting and dilution -- rather than unceremoniously dump the contents of the shaker into your salt-rimmed glass. It's one thing to laud the charming casualness of the gesture, but another entirely to let the drink suffer, even if ever so slightly.
This is par for the course at Moderno, where good bones and fresh, quality ingredients tend to lose their luster and their definition under the weight of such casual missteps. It's never enough to ruin the experience, though, just to make you want a bit more.
A plate of guacamole arrives, treated simply atop a mound of shredded lettuce. It is cool and calm and lush of texture. The avocado is fresh and vibrant, at its peak of ripeness. It wants a bit more lime and a bit less salt. While we're at it, perhaps a more generous application of cilantro and at least a prickle of chile heat.
Strips of grilled poblano lend a nice, sweetly vegetal note to balance the salty punch of chorizo on top of an overly thick queso fundido. If it were a bit gooier, the better to spoon onto impressive flour tortillas, and served just a bit hotter, it would strike all the right notes. As it is, the appeal wanes quickly as the cheese stiffens. Those tortillas, though, stiffen in just the right way, showcasing their lardy constitution and boasting a nice speckle of char. Tucked into more of those worthy tortillas, Moderno's version of fajitas fares reasonably well. The large, tender strips of beef are almost too moist, with some nice char and a hint of smoke. A touch of salt would help, but there is good, beefy flavor here. The texture, though, seems almost as if the meat was grilled and then held. I blame this in part on the comal, or rather the lack thereof.
Some might think the sizzling cast-iron platters mere showmanship, a sure way to turn heads as a smoking, spitting mound of pure beef envy parades through the dining room. This is certainly one of the reasons for their ubiquity, but it ignores the physical benefits to the food itself. When you put grilled meat on a ceramic plate, it cools. Its moisture pools underneath it. It can only get worse from the minute it is pulled from the grill, up to the minute it's tucked into a tortilla and topped with a tangle of grilled onions. When you place grilled meat on a searingly hot comal, the magic is just getting started.
That smoking, hissing display isn't just pomp and circumstance; it's transformative. Instead of sitting limply on a plate, your meat continues to develop. Juices vaporize and add aroma. Proteins undergo more of those delicious chain reactions we call browning, keeping and deepening the crust from the hot grill and adding a constantly morphing array of textures to your beef. That tangle of onions gets similar treatment, ranging from perfumed and steamy on the top to caramelized so deeply as to be almost burnt and crispy toward the bottom. The thermal capacity of those heavy metal griddles ensures that the magic continues throughout the meal, from the first tortilla to the last time you have to request more tortillas (does anyone not do that?). It is, perhaps, the best and highest way to serve fajitas, and its adoption would do immeasurable good here.
There are issues with the beef in the carne asada rendition of the DF street tacos, too. Chopped to a rubble of deeply charred bits, the asada tastes fantastic, with just the right edge of bitterness to round out its beefy oomph. All that char comes at the price of dryness, though, making the taco a bit tough to swallow. Grilled onions help somewhat, but a nicely paired salsa would help more. There's the table version, served warm and gently seasoned, but it's not the right match. The chicken DF taco fares better -- juicy, savory and tender against the bulwark of darkly sweet onions. The tortillas are problematic in both versions.
Especially considering how pert and perfect the flour version is here, the corn tortillas are a listless disappointment, seemingly plucked straight from a supermarket pack. Even a turn across the flattop would improve things considerably, adding some bits of charry contrast in both flavor and texture. As is, these are sad, boring examples of the form.
Of course, those flour tortillas aren't quite a cure-all. They couldn't save the homogenized feel of the fried chicken taco, its overly heavy accoutrements leading to an almost instantaneous palate fatigue. Even the promised avocado and tomatillo salsa contributed to the overwhelming feeling of gloppiness, adding little more than creamy richness with no pop of acid to liven things up. A spritz of lime stolen from the rim of one of those admirable margaritas helps, but not by much.
The lime comes waiting for you on a plate of Baja tacos, whose cilantro ranch is similarly afflicted. Fortunately, the crunch of filament-thin cabbage holds up nicely against the equally arresting crunch of a thin and shale-like batter. Go for the shrimp version, whose well-cooked crustacean offers a nutty sweetness and dewy flesh. The fried white fish is mealy and boring.
Vegetarians might be lulled into thinking they'll be well cared for at Moderno, given the presence of a couple of nice-sounding options. Unfortunately, the ratatouille tacos offer nothing more than a tumble of thoughtlessly grilled vegetables with none of the lush textures or rounded and burnished flavors you might be expecting. Spinach and mushroom enchiladas come draped in an oddly sweet poblano crema, an overly thickened blanket enrobing a gummy tortilla, further softening the edges of the already soft filling. The whole thing winds up an odd, mushy mess. The beans are the best thing on both plates.
In fact, the beans fare well here generally. The standard pinto version comes lush with pork fat, with a slight smoky edge. Charro beans are soupy and alluring, and have the right balance of vegetal sweetness and bacony punch. The real standout, though, is the refried black beans. A surprising wallop of bay might knock you off balance, but only for a moment, contributing a really lovely alpine note. I'm already determined to steal the move and pass it off as my own stroke of brilliance.
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You're surely wondering at this point why there's been no mention of cheese enchiladas. That's because they're a bit of a tough nut to crack here. There's something beguiling about the chili sauce, even though its abundance of meat makes it seem more apt as a hot-dog topping. So zealous is the application of meat that you might initially mistake these for beef enchiladas, as was the case at dinner one night.
The flavor walks a little too close to the line of too much chile powder, blaring a little loudly and with too little harmony. The whole effect tastes a bit raw, as if the spices haven't had the chance to bloom. Appropriately processed cheese fills slightly tough tortillas. It's not a bad plate of enchiladas, but it feels a bit off, almost as if it were conceived from a written description of the dish rather than firsthand experience. A recalibration of the seasoning in the chili sauce would go a long way, and the generous dose of beef might prove worthy of fondness, in time.
That's pretty much the thing with Moderno. Some dishes are in need of a bit of revision but show enough underlying character to suggest that fast friendship is just a few tweaks away. Invest in some comals and give Texans what they've come to expect of their fajitas. Bring those corn tortillas up to par with their floury counterparts. Pay a little more attention to seasoning, starting with salt and acid. Strain those otherwise excellent margaritas properly, making them a true steal at $4 (house version) on Margarita Mondays. The bones are there; now Moderno just needs to be fleshed out.
10455 Briar Forest, Suite 150, 713-784-4600. Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays; 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturdays; 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Tequila Ocho Reposado margarita $10.50 House margarita $6.50 ($4 on Mondays) Queso fundido $8.95 Guacamole $4.95 Beef fajitas $17.95 Ratatouille taco plate $9.95 Cheese enchiladas $9.95 Spinach and mushroom enchiladas $10.95 Fried chicken taco plate $9.95 DF street taco plate $10.95 Baja taco plate $10.95