It's Friday evening, just past 6 p.m., and chef Jonathan Jones is moving with ease behind the bar at El Big Bad downtown. He seems comfortable, happy. His mood is decidedly jovial, and he's telling us about the some of the daily specials he's running now that he's taken over as executive chef of the downtown gastro-cantina. They all sound mouthwatering.
"We have St. Louis Berkshire pork ribs glazed with a chile morita sauce," he says, as he describes how he's cooked them so that they're fall off the bone tender. I'm groaning, a sort of half-pain-half-pleasure sort of sound, and tell him: "That sounds so good."
In response, he gives me this confident grin, the one that tells me he knows it's not just good, but damn good, and says somewhat modestly, "It is. It's really good."
Sometimes confidence such as this is unwarranted, but in Jones's case, his goods measured up to the expectation: The ribs, covered in a chile-morita glaze that resembled a thick Mexican mole, and dusted with some sesame seeds, were fall-off-the-bone-tender, deep with flavor, and absolutely delicious.
Just one of a handful of dishes we had ordered on a recent Friday evening, when my friend Greg and I stopped in for a quick bite on the way to the theater, the ribs told me that Jones is back in the zone, cooking the food that he was meant to cook. Recipes that he'd developed for the late El Xuco Xicana (El XX), have been resurrected, like his famous pozole, which I didn't try, but I hear is as good as ever.
There were the chips and salsa -- hand-made, high quality salsas that are not (gasp!) served gratis, but are offered for reasonable charge. The salsas are the kind you'd find in Mexico, made fiery through the use of different peppers and spices. We received a red salsa, a green salsa, and a deep, brown-black salsa made with whole peppers, their sweet and spicy sourness reminding me a of the flavors of tamarind, yet bolder, spicier.
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Then there was the stacked beef brisket barbacoa enchilada, something I'd never tasted before. Served in a shiny brown round casserole, to be cut up and served as you would a deep dish pizza, thick, gooey cheesiness combined with the hearty meatiness of the shredded brisket barbacoa in a way that was so decadent and tasty that I had what can only be described as a "foodgasm."
A daily special of BlackHill Ranch goat birria, a type of Mexican meat stew, also made a strongly favorable impression. Served with handmade tortillas, we scooped the meat and sauce into a tortilla and topped it with red onion and cilantro, eating it like you would a very juicy taco. The sauces may have dripped from my fingers, and there was no way to eat it in a ladylike manner, but man, was it good.