Ever since Thai Sticks closed in February, foodies across Houston have been speculating as to what would replace it. With a prime location on Montrose Boulevard, the spot seemed poised for something special — a destination restaurant, maybe, or a new concept from an established chef. Instead, a veteran operator has joined forces with two of Houston's most talented up-and-coming chefs to launch what will hopefully become Montrose's next great neighborhood restaurant.
Meet Pax Americana, where restaurateur Shepard Ross (Glass Wall, Brooklyn Athletic Club) has joined forces with his BAC landlords the Zimmerman family and partnered with chef Adam Dorris (Stella Sola, Revival Market, Ghetto Dinner pop-up series).
Dorris, in turn, has brought two longtime friends in the fold: Plinio Sandalio, recently of the JW Marriott but more widely known for his work as a pastry chef at Textile, and general manager Chris Fleischman, last seen at Lillo and Ella but who worked with Dorris at Stella Sola.
No one will commit to an opening date beyond "summer," but Aug. 1 seems like a reasonable prediction for Pax to open to the public. (The Chronicle first reported the news.)
Dolce Vita catalyst
Ross tells CultureMap that he ran into Dorris at Dolce Vita and began to discuss his ideas for a restaurant in the Thai Sticks space with the chef. "Dolce Vita is the catalyst for how most spin-off restaurants start in town," Ross quips. "I do want to give them credit."
Dorris adds that he'd been trying to working on a restaurant for eight months before his meeting with Ross. "Finding a space was always the big issue," he explains. "I had a couple spaces fall through. The idea of linking up with Shepard, who’s someone I’ve really respected in town, was really appealing."
"When Adam cooks and the way he talks about his food, it’s infectious and not in an e-coli kind of way. You watch him, and he gets so serious . . . I’m just mesmerized by it."
Ross recognizes that he's assembled something of a culinary dream team for Pax and also that it's likely to draw more press attention that either of his other restaurants. "That’s what makes this project so attractive to me," he says. "I think the older you get, you want to push yourself. You want to get the ideas that roll around in your head and find the people who can make those sort of dreams into reality. I think that’s what's so appealing about this team."
Dorris is known for his laid-back attitude, but Ross says his demeanor changes as soon as he gets into the kitchen. "When Adam cooks and the way he talks about his food, it’s infectious and not in an e-coli kind of way. You watch him, and he gets so serious . . . I’m just mesmerized by it."
He describes Sandalio as a "triple threat" for the way he has experience with savory, pastry and cocktails. Ross recalls a recent meeting where Sandalio walked behind the bar at next door Zimm's and started combining ingredients. "We've got to have a Pax Americana," Ross recalls Sandalio telling him. "And it's based around an Americano?," Ross asked. "Of course," Sandalio replied. That sort of shared thinking unites the entire team.
Sincere food and service
Both Ross and Dorris use the word "sincere" to describe Pax's approach to food and service. They believe if diners buy into their vision for the restaurant they'll come back again and again.
"Hospitality is a dying art in our Google-driven generation of 'me it’s mine, I want it now. Actually, I want it yesterday. What can you do for me and what have you done for me lately'," Ross muses. "That’s the direction the Internet has taken our culture. I think it’s nice to see when people come and sit down that we’re there to take care of you, give you a great environment and put the best product we believe in on the table. We believe in what we’re doing, and all we’re asking is give us a chance."
The space has new paint, modern lighting fixtures, new ceiling fans and a window that looks into a kitchen that features all new equipment.
Fleischman, who spent time at the Fairmont hotel in Dallas after leaving Stella Sola, agrees with Ross's guest-centered approach to service. "At a place like (the Fairmont), the guest is always right," Fleischman explains. "That attitude transformed the way I try to conduct business now. It’s always about the guest. It has to be sincere. It has to be real. When you create that with the staff and with the food and the cooks and the guests, it makes the most sense. You can’t ever fake it or anything like that."
According to the Chronicle, Sandalio may be running afoul of a non-compete agreement by jumping ship to Pax so quickly. While he declined to discuss any aspects of the timing of his decision, Sandalio did elaborate on Pax's appeal for him.
"Every day at work I bake what I need to bake. When I come home, I cook a lot of savory stuff, a lot of comfort food, a lot of braising. I wanted to switch back to savory and do that again and do that in a restaurant environment, not just at home . . . . There’s a lot I can learn from Adam. I know nothing about charcuterie, so I’m really looking forward to working on that."
Asked about what makes working with Dorris so special, Sandalio replies quickly. "His passion. The way he describes his food. The way he describes his concept. It’s everything that I wanted to do that I’ve been working towards getting there. This came about, and I was just really excited. It came out at the perfect time. Just one of those opportunities that you have to take. I threw everything away just to take this."
Ross thinks the issue over the non-compete can be resolved peacefully. "I wouldn't think that (a lawsuit is) good for anybody," he says.
In terms of design, Pax has a completely different look than Thai Sticks. The space has new paint, modern lighting fixtures, new ceiling fans and a window that looks into a kitchen that features all new equipment. The retro, deco-styled bar remains intact, thankfully. Since the restaurant only has about 80 seats indoors, Ross anticipates that neighboring Zimm's will serve as a "fantastic waiting area and lounge" with a menu of small plates designed by Dorris and Sandalio.
Ross says the name refers to the spreading of American culture around the globe after World War II and the corresponding influence of other cultures on American life. That will be reflected in the food, which will consist of shareable plates that use local, seasonal, sustain ingredients.
Does that mean it's farm to table? "That term is so bad, man," Ross replies. Instead, he cites his and Dorris's long-term, "personal" relationships with the producers who supply the restaurant.
"We want all the items to be under $20. We want it to be a neighborhood restaurant. We want you to be able to come in and eat several times a week and not break the bank."
Asked whether his stages in California influenced the menu, Dorris explains that Pax's food is "inspired by what we all like to eat and how we like to eat. We all love the idea of walking into a place and they know us and we know them. We know what we can expect. It’s fun to dine that way.
"We’re going to have a cured meat program, a lot of fresh stuff, a lot of terrines. We won’t focus as much on the dry cure because of space issues," Dorris adds. "We’ll have a definite old world feel to the menu, because we’re going to have a lot of the items that you’ve seen at every place that I’ve been. Then, it’s going to be a lot of shared items . . . We want all the items to be under $20. We want it to be a neighborhood restaurant. We want you to be able to come in and eat several times a week and not break the bank . . . Even though the food might be a little more interesting than a mom and pop neighborhood restaurant, we want it to have that feel and familiarity."
As for the future, Ross thinks he's assembled a stable group who can lead a series of projects. "We look ahead, not by putting the cart in front of the horse, of what does this lead to. What other properties are going to open up? Where does this concept lead?
"Yes, we’ve got plans. Those plans are dream until you’re rocking and rolling and it’s a viable business and everything’s good and everyone’s got a thumbs up and a green light across the board. Then it’s about what’s next. We’re always looking at what’s next.
"We don’t think about, oh well, what if this doesn’t work out. You don’t ever start with a negative and have a backup plan. This is the plan."