Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 3: Tommy Birdwell of TQLA

After sitting down for a lengthy and fascinating conversation (recounted in parts one and two), Chef Birdwell brought out a few of the dishes on TQLA's recently revised menu.

We began with the barbecue duck tamale, made with achiote masa and cascabel barbecue sauce, topped with a tomatillo guajillo chile sauce, and wrapped in a banana leaf. It's a great starter, and exquisitely rendered. The interior was neither dry nor greasy, which is a neat trick with tamales. And the sneaky-spicy sauce was thoughtfully spooned over only one corner, allowing you to have as much or as little as you want in each bite. I'll just say that by the end, my plate was clean.

Next up was the grilled Texas quail: two quail on a bed of blue corn polenta, along with Cotija cheese and a mound of black bean and sweet potato succotash. The tender, flavorful birds were lightly brushed with an agave glaze (the same agave used in the TQLA margaritas) whose intense sweetness was cut with a bit of chile de árbol. The theme of the dish, Chef Birdwell said, was Texas, "because in Texas, everyone likes quail." He added that the dish had special meaning to him because of his days working at the hunting lodge in Mexico. "I've cleaned a lot of quail in my day."

"If a hunter brought in a quail that he had shot and wanted you to cook it, would you?" I wondered aloud.

"Of course," said Chef Birdwell. "It's funny, when I worked at the Crescent Court Hotel in Dallas, Larry Hagman - J.R. Ewing from Dallas - would walk right through the restaurant after he'd been quail hunting, blood all over him, and he'd bring his quail right into the kitchen. We'd clean them and he'd sit down and have a Scotch, and then we'd serve him his quail."

"That hasn't happened here yet?" I asked.

"Not yet."

After the quail came a plate of crawfish and Texas pecan hush puppies, studded with fresh corn and red and yellow peppers, and sitting in a blackened tomatillo sauce. It's a combination I never would have thought of, but it worked. (Then again, do hush puppies ever not work?) Perhaps the key to this dish is that every bite had some crawfish action, since the batter contained both crawfish chunks and crawfish paste.

We finished with the Patron XO Chocolate Flan with cinnamon whipped cream, with El Rey chocolate from Venezuela and canela (Mexican cinnamon) whipped cream. "I had done a chocolate flan before," Chef Birdwell said, "but not using Patron. Seeing as how we're a tequila bar, I incorporated Patron XO, which is sort of a sweet coffee tequila."

"It's really awesome," he concluded. And I would have to agree. Although the dessert menu lists Cuatro Leches as the house specialty, it's hard to believe it could be better than this smooth, chocolatey marvel. It's the best flan I've ever tasted.

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Matthew Dresden
Contact: Matthew Dresden