Moving to a brick and mortar represents a natural evolution for the truck that’s earned wide acclaim for its creative, flavorful tacos. A staple at the weekly Urban Harvest farmers market, Luhrman earned the Golden Cleaver award at last year’s Butcher’s Ball, and El Topo ranked 50th on CultureMap’s list of Houston’s top 100 restaurants.
With only some cosmetic changes planned for the space, Luhrman and business partner Mike Serva hope to open in early December.
“Pizza Motus as it was designed was incredibly smart. He’s got a full HVAC in the kitchen, he’s got a huge walk-in, he’s got a beautiful vent hood,” Luhrman says. “Being able to drop in here saves us a ton of money, so we can devote what we would have had to spend on essentials like putting in a vent hood into making a much more beautiful restaurant. I can get handmade plates now. I can get beautiful, comfortable chairs and have a banquette built, because I didn’t have to build out a whole kitchen.”
In truck form, El Topo is known for its sophisticated tacos made with high-quality proteins such as beef from 44 Farms, handmade tortillas, and salsas that utilize seasonal produce. Regulars know that the specials board frequently includes non-taco options that showcase Luhrman’s diverse skills: everything from muffins to seasonal salads made with farm fresh produce. Those will anchor the restaurant's menu, but the offering will expand a bit with more choices along with beer and wine.
The chef describes his restaurant as an all-day cafe that appeals to the neighborhood's diverse needs: parents who drop their kids off at school in the morning, business people looking for a healthy lunch, and a more elevated offering at dinner. Overall, Luhrman articulates a vision for “Texas cuisine” that encompasses Mexican, Southern, and historical Texas "frontier" influences that are derived from cowboys cooking on the open range.
“What I want to capture in a restaurant are those three elements, how can we be Mexican, frontier, and Southern, and how can we use what’s grown here with cooking techniques available to us to elicit flavors that other people haven’t,” Luhrman says.
“What El Topo always was intended to be was a Bar Tartine on wheels made in Texas. When you’re Bar Tartine in San Francisco, you have a really dope sourdough, because San Francisco is known for sourdough. When you’re a Bar Tartine in Houston, you have a dope barbacoa taco. What we always tried to say is we aren’t Mexican, but I grew up with a lot of Mexican traditions. A lot of the way Mexico runs in terms of community and how it thinks about food has influenced me to my core.”
At breakfast, that will likely manifest as breakfast tacos as well as freshly baked pastries. At lunch, look for El Topo’s signature barbacoa taco. For dinner, that could mean anything from a Texas wagyu steak cooked in cast iron to crawfish and grits or dishes that utilize freshly baked bread — whatever is fresh and appealing.
While Mexican traditions shape Luhrman’s ideas about food, his ideas about hospitality are influenced by the restaurants of acclaimed San Antonio chef Damien Vatel, especially his signature fine-dining restaurant Bistro Watel, and Le Frites, a casual Belgian restaurant that Watel opened and later sold.
“I think this restaurant will be kind of like Le Frite was. They had 12 tables, four bottles of white, four bottles of red. Every single one of them was a banger,” Luhrman says.
“I want to bring a restaurant like that here. I want to bring a restaurant where real cooking is happening, and it’s an intimate spot. It’s not designed for speed. It’s designed for care. Not that I’m trying to get you out the door, but that I’m excited to have you in.”
El Topo will be located down the street from Tiny’s No. 5. That restaurant has found success by making diners feel welcome and executing its food consistently — two qualities Luhrman aspires to for his restaurant. Add in a fresh, innovative menu and a solid beverage program, and El Topo looks poised for success in its new home.