El Big Bad, the bigger, badder version of Heights gastrocantina El Gran Malo, is set to open in early November in the former Cabo/Pepper Jack's space on Market Square. To give diners a preview of the new menu, designed by former Rainbow Lodge/Bootsie's Heritage Cafe chef Randy Rucker, the restaurant held two preview dinners this week.
Although both the decor and the food are still a work in progress, the dinner demonstrates the way that El Big Bad's larger space allows for more dishes than the tacos that are El Gran Malo's signature.
Dinner began with a demonstration by third generation jimador (agave farmer) Jose Cortes. Cortes showed how he uses a traditional tool to harvest agave plants. In a matter of minutes, he thrust the tool at the tall plant, chopping away the thick leaves to reveal the large pineapple-shaped fruit that eventually becomes tequila. Short of going to Mexico for the agave harvest, it's the closest any of us will get to the process that brings tequila to tables.
It wasn't perfect, but there's enough talent in the kitchen to fix the problems.
With the entertainment portion of the evening complete, Rucker, executive chef Ben Rabbani and newly hired sous chef Mark Parmley began to serve eight courses — six savory and two sweet. Generally, the preview revealed a new, seafood-oriented direction for El Big Bad that reflects both Rucker and Rabbani's commitment to utilizing local ingredients whenever possible.
The meal began with ceviche. Both Rucker and Rabbani have tons of experience preparing the dish. This version had a sweet, spicy flavor with a little salty pop from capers. Next up, serrano-marinated Gulf shrimp that had diners reaching for the cooling refreshment of the paired sweet, hibiscus-infused cocktail. Both of these courses preview the raw bar that co-owner Steve Sharma tells CultureMap will be a part of the restaurant when it opens.
The next two courses seemed to be works in progress. A blue crab tostada had a crispy, salty crunch, but it felt as though the crab's flavor was lost between the fried tortilla and cheese. The mango and beet salad that followed had an interesting concept, but the mango sauce had a runny texture that made it hard to eat.
Thankfully, things took a turn for the better with a chicken tamale. The masa uses Mangalitsa pork that gave it an incredibly light, almost fluffy texture. Topped with mole, it had a subtle spiciness that had people near me asking for seconds. Expect them to be a lunch menu staple.
Whole-roasted Texas redfish showed a slight reluctance to pull away from the bones cleanly, but the fish's chimichurri enhanced flavor more than made up for it being a little undercooked. Hopefully, practice makes perfect.
Desserts showed a surprisingly adeptness with pastry, particularly the buttery crust of the apple tostada, although the included crema was more like cream cheese in its overall thickness and consistency. Cinnamon covered churros with a rich chocolate dipping sauce finished the meal.
It wasn't perfect, but there's enough talent in the kitchen to fix the problems. Owners Steve Sharma and Lea McKinney spent time both before and after talking to their guests. They understand what a big step up El Big Bad is for them and are determined to make it work.