Ever since the Lasco Group revealed its plans to open an upscale Tex-Mex restaurant called Anejo in the space previously occupied by Arturo's Uptown Italiano, skeptics have questioned whether the restaurant will be viable. After all, the argument goes, Tex-Mex is a humble cuisine, born of pedestrian ingredients like skirt steak and Velveeta cheese. Making Tex-Mex fancy could ruin what people love about it.
Of course, people probably said the same thing about fancying up fried chicken when the company launched Max's Wine Dive, and that's worked out OK so far. Max's ninth location is set to open in Denver in April.
Owner Jerry Lasco has read all the comments and heard all the objections, but he isn't concerned. "It would have been easier to go right down the middle of the fairway . . . it would be less risk," to open a more traditional Tex-Mex restaurant, he tells me during a recent media event. "(But that) didn't seem like as much fun."
The chef asked if the company wanted to commit to creating the best Tex-Mex experience in the world.
Executive chef Michael Pellegrino puts it even more succinctly. "Tex-Mex is like a religion in this state," he says.
Everyone has a favorite Tex-Mex place that he or she believes is the best, and arguments about, say Ninfa's vs. El Tiempo can even become heated. The company clearly understands what it's up against but feels like a market exists for a version of this cuisine that uses high-quality ingredients and fine-dining style preparations.
Lasco says early on in the company's conversations about Anejo that Pellegrino asked if the company wanted to commit to creating the best Tex-Mex experience in the world. He compares the restaurant's approach to people deciding whether or not to order Prime beef.
"I'll respect somebody making a choice," Lasco says. "We're hoping guests notice and appreciate the difference."
Upscale Tex-Mex Truths
Those differences start with making dishes a la minute. For example, an order of enchiladas begins by pressing and cooking the tortillas before wrapping them around a filling instead of pulling already prepared tortillas out of a warmer.
Meats are grilled to order over a wood-burning grill. That may come as a surprise to people who are used to having their fajitas hit the table five minutes after ordering. Yes, Pellegrino saw that Anejo's version has the highest cost of any in CultureMap's Fajitas Price Index at $49.50, but he says the prices comes from the decision to use the version of outside skirt steak they liked the best — a process that began with more than 50 samples from vendors.
The meat gets seasoned simply with a dry rub and lime juice, which means it's gluten-free — something that's all too rare when many places use soy sauce as part of their fajitas marinade.
Similarly, determining the exact amount of lard required for Anejo's flour tortillas or the right blend of cheeses for queso took untold hours of development and tasting. The queso has a bechamel base and a three cheese blend. It actually tastes like cheese, which seems sort of novel, but it still coats the chips properly.
I t actually tastes like cheese, which seems sort of novel, but it still coats the chips properly.
That sort of rigor means that Anejo will likely be a one-off, or, at least, limited to the Houston-area. "From a business standpoint, (expansion) doesn't make sense," Lasco says. "You'd have to water it down." Or stop mixing ultra-fancy Casa Dragones tequila into the butter that's used to poach the lobster tails for the parrillada platters.
Diners can also treat Anejo like a steakhouse. Start with a shrimp cocktail, salad or ceviche; choose Prime beef or grilled snapper for an entree with a la carte sides like creamed spinach or queso flameado scalloped potatoes.
Even the house margarita features Maestro Dobel Diamante tequila that retails for almost $50 per bottle, which is why it costs $11, but it's half-off every day from noon to 6 p.m. during happy hour. Wine prices follow the pattern established at both Max's and The Tasting Room of being only slightly above retail. Those sorts of gestures are designed to help Anejo cultivate regulars, as opposed to people who see the menu's prices and immediately assume it's only for special occasions.
Whether the meal is worth the expense will depend on each diner's budget, but Anejo's kitchen is already off to a strong start. Even with Pellegrino in the dining room to chat with media members, the prime steaks arrived properly medium rare, and the spinach enchilada had a delicate texture and filling that wasn't the typically overcooked mess.
High-quality ingredients, flavorful preparations and creative presentations — for those who love Tex-Mex, it's worth checking out.