When Sabor on Montrose opened six months ago, things were hot, hot, hot -- and not because it was the middle of another steamy Houston summer.
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 and jumbo 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.
Q. So you dropped that and went Tex-Mex?
A. Like many restaurants, we're trying to accommodate our clientele. In this case, it's meant shifting to a more Tex-Mex-y menu.
Q. What's behind the name change?
A. Well, I had to tear down the sign out front to make room for our wonderful new patio, so I thought that's as good a time as any to change the name.
Q. Yes, but why change the name at all?
A. Oh, I see. Because the restaurant itself has changed, and that's a way to let people know that. We're still Sabor, but not exactly the Sabor that Sabor was when Sabor first opened, so I changed it to 1308 Cantina. That's our address, you know -- 1308 Montrose.
Q. Didn't it change from Sabor to "Jon Paul's Sabor" first?
A. That only lasted about eight hours. We were just playing around, amusing ourselves.
Q. But the name change to 1308 Cantina comes with new partners, too? The Laurenzo family?
A. Dominic Laurenzo is the executive chef now, yes.
Q. Just Dominic individually? Or the whole Laurenzo operation -- Roland and Joey and Jack?
A. Well, the family, I guess.
Q. How'd that come about?
A. They used to come here to eat, and we'd chitchat about the business. They're very experienced with the Tex-Mex scene, and we wanted to change in that direction, so boom-boom-boom one thing led to another.
Q. And Sabor has become another El Tiempo?
A. I wouldn't say that. This is still my restaurant.
Q. Your restaurant with the Laurenzos?
A. They're hardly ever here. Mostly it's just Dominic, in the kitchen.
Q. But this seems a whole lot like an El Tiempo Cantina. You have that same creamy tomatillo salsa that came from Ninfa Laurenzo. And you're using those little metal grills that are an El Tiempo signature. What do you call those, anyway?
A. I call them...um, little metal grills.
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