Located on the prominent corner of Travis and Prairie in the building that used to house Cabo's, El Big Bad, the offshoot of Lea McKinney and Steve Sharma's wildly successful El Gran Malo, is almost ready to open. The gorgeous copper-topped bar is in place downstairs. The large, inviting patio is just waiting to be populated. The menu has been created by consulting chef Randy Rucker, and the two key players on the food side -- executive chef Ben Rabbani and sous chef Mark Parmley -- have been hired.
"You need to open soon!" I exclaimed as I stepped onto the restaurant's wide wooden upstairs patio. A light breeze drifted around me in lazy playfulness, making me want to hang out and admire the twinkling lights of downtown instead of going back downstairs.
"We're waiting on the murals to be completed," replied Sharma. "And a few other things," he replied enigmatically. Even so, you can tell that Sharma and McKinney are more than ready to get the party started. And to give expectant fans something to look forward to, they recently held a "snapshot" dinner, offering two seatings of a seven-course cocktail pairing dinner for $95, just to whet our appetites for what's to come.
To make the event even more special, El Big Bad partnered with Herradura Tequila, which flew in a third-generation jimador -- a farmer who harvests agave plants -- to kick off the dinner with a live demonstration. Guests watched in amazement as the jimador used a special tool to break down the spiky leaves of the plant before breaking open its core.
And then the festivities began. If you've been to dinners put on by the El Gran Malo team, you'll know that their drinks are seriously badass. El Big Bad is no different. Their libations are extremely creative. They taste awesome. They're deceptively light but pack a strong punch. And they'll make you very, very happy.
This is no doubt how my friend Minh and several of the other attendees felt throughout the evening, starting with a shot of smooth Herradura Silver Tequila, which was served with delicious housemade red and green sangrita chasers to create a palette of red, white and green shot glasses: the colors of the Mexican flag.
The shots were paired with a first course of gulf shrimp aguachile made of lightly poached shrimp that had been marinated in a chile water of serrano, cilantro and shaved red onion. Resembling a ceviche but much milder and less tangy, the shrimp had an almost plain taste, until the bright pops of chile spice came into play. It was a shrewd pairing, allowing the tequila to shine next to the intensely herbaceous flavors of the two sangritas.
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The second course -- blue crab tostada with smashed white bean, corn, avocado and fried shallots -- is something I'm hoping I'll see on the El Big Bad happy hour menu when it debuts, mainly because it's fun to pick up a crispy tortilla with your hands and munch on it until it's gone. Paired with an expertly concocted, magenta-colored agua fresca made of hibiscus-infused tequila, it was one of my favorite courses of the night.
Though each course offered something memorable -- a salad of roasted beets sitting in a pool of mango puree with chile, lime and cilantro, and topped with round slivers of crunchy-crisp jicama sprinkled with crushed pistachios; chicken tamales made with a masa made with mangalitsa lard and served shrouded in a richly flavored, deep-brown Oaxacan mole; the whole grilled chimichurri-marinated Texas redfish served on wooden platters; hot beignet-like churros served with spicy Mexican chocolate sauce -- the night, for me, was all about the drinks.
We're talking fresh and fruity pink-colored Herradura tequila margaritas made with blueberry, jalapeño and cilantro; peanut flips that tasted like spiked liquid Nutter Butters; gorgeously concocted Acapulco Slims of pineapple-infused Herradura Reposado with fresh pineapple, lime juice and sparkling wine; and even a French press Amaya Roasting coffee served with a "churro" shot of cinnamon and Madagascar vanilla-infused Herradura Añejo. The drinks, developed by the El Gran Malo team, were all expertly crafted, right down to the glass or vessel that was chosen for each one.
This is why I want El Big Bad to open sooner rather than later: The drinks are already stellar. Complemented by chef-driven Mexican cuisine (think Mexican with unusual twists, such as refried black beans, guacamole topped with caramelized onions, or a kick-ass pozole or menudo as a hangover helper) and a stunning upper deck that wraps around two corners of the building and affords fabulous cityscape views, El Big Bad is poised to become one of the shining stars of a reinvigorated downtown scene.