Even though we were already full of queso and ceviche when the entrees came out last night at El Patio, my dining companion and I couldn't help but dig in.
"Oh, this tastes just like something my mom or grandma would have made at home, on the stove," he sighed over his carne guisada tacos, caramelized beef shoulder marinated with serrano chiles and tucked into homemade flour tortillas. I was sure they were good, but was far too busy demolishing my shrimp and crab enchiladas, covered in a velvety poblano cream sauce, to give it a second thought.
If the food is already this good at El Patio before it's been fully rebranded to become Xuco Xicana (pronounced "Chuco Chicana," a reference to Pachuco culture), I can't wait to see the rest of what Jonathan Jones has up his sleeve. The executive chef at Beaver's -- who refers to himself as "the original white Mexican" -- has been working as a concept designer and concept chef for the El Patio group in an effort to take the restaurant's Midtown location in an entirely different direction.
"We're the granddaughter of El Patio original," Jones said on the phone this afternoon. "And we want to be more and more associated with traditional interior Mexican food than regular Tex-Mex."
To that end, Jones has already started revamping the menu -- beginning with the brunch menu back in January -- as well as the interior of the restaurant, which will soon feature a new logo (seen to the right) and decorations by Aerosol Warfare as well as a late-night soundtrack by DJ Domotraxxx that mixes old-school Latin music like Buena Vista Social Club and Tito Puentes with modern dance music.
But it's the food that Jones is most excited about.
"I worked with five chefs from Lima, Peru when I was working with the Cordua group," he said about the ceviche my friend and I ate every bite of last night. "I learned all the different ways of making ceviches and leche de tigre. You make your leche with lime juice and you add bruised celery ribs, carrots and onions -- just like a mirepoix -- and let that sit overnight."
"It adds this whole different dimension and roundness that you don't get from a regular ceviche with straight lime juice," he finished. And last night's ceviche spoke to this technique, with a full, round flavor that also incorporated the sweet, smoky flavor of chipotle peppers. It was a perfect match for the black drum, a rarely used but incredibly mild Gulf fish.
Jones spoke in animated tones about the mushroom enchiladas -- made with three kinds of Texas mushrooms stewed in a pasilla adobo with vinegar, cloves, cinnamon, oregano and garlic -- another locally based dish with a typically playful twist at the end: Jones adds earthy huitlacoche to the mushroom mix. "I've had meat-eatin' men come in and eat a whole plate of these," he laughed about the fully vegetarian dish.
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For now, the restaurant is still called El Patio while it undergoes its full transformation, and the menu is still a mix of El Patio favorites and Jones's own additions. Following the Xuco Xicana Twitter account will give you a good idea of what Jones is serving up on which days. The rotation tends to change based on what he's teaching the kitchen: Jalisco-style wings one day or lamb tamales the next. The full menu and rebranding should be completed by mid-March, with a few of the old El Patio favorites remaining on the menu for old times' sake.
Those concerned about the new direction of an old Houston institution shouldn't worry. The original El Patio on Westheimer is staying the same...for now. "We're not saying that Tex-Mex doesn't have a place here," Jones said. "It does. We're just the new generation of El Patio." And best of all, the prices are staying blissfully low.
One thing won't change, though, and that's the always-festive vibe at the Midtown location. It'll still be open late, and it'll still serve its notoriously strong margaritas. After all, Jones says: "There ain't no party like a Latina party!"