It's never been to difficult to assemble a posse for brunch at El Patio, but throw in a sunny day, a convertible and a new menu by Beaver's Jonathan Jones, and you've got a premium Sunday morning on your hands.
The people behind El Patio — the third generation of the family that opened the original restaurant nearly a half-century ago — asked Jones to update their style and food to match the young, food-savvy consumers in Midtown. The result is a new name, Xuco Xicana (pronounced Chuco Chicana, a reference to both El Paso and Mexican pride), and a lineup of new and revamped dishes that build on the history of El Patio while bringing in the authentic flavors of central and southern Mexico.
"There's been a huge paradigm shift," says Jones, who grew up eating off taco trucks in La Porte. "Tex-Mex was invented by necessity by Mexican immigrants. The ingredients from Mexico weren't available here in 1900, and they were catering to Anglo palates that couldn't stand the heat. That's how guajillo salsa became chili gravy. So to move forward we are actually going backwards, making older dishes. It's the kind of food the owners have always eaten at home."
We started with the queso to measure the barometer of change. It's a slightly thinner version, full of spicy chunks and flavored by a tart white cheese. Dallasites might recognize it as similar to the white cheese queso that the El Fenix family has been turning out since 1919 — it's unusual and equally addictive.
The queso devoured, we turned our attention to entrees. We started with the TeXano toast, a stuffed French toast made of thick swaths of bread held together with dulce de leche and dipped in the runoff of tres leches cake (yes, seriously). A paean to sticky, sweet breakfast foods, it was an epicure's delight — particularly when limited to a bite or two among friends.
To eat the entire dish alone might induce a sugar coma, but oh, what a way to go.
Most of the menu sticks to more traditional flavors. The enfrijoladas — corn tortillas covered by a bed of refried black beans, scrambled eggs and a drizzling of queso fresco — were a solid choice, thick but not heavy. I also loved the carby torta de tamale, with a hoagie-style sandwich roll from El Bolillo cradling a pork tamale, avocado, a fried egg and some melted queso blanco.
But the best dish was the off-menu red snapper with mojo de ajo. Fresh and perfectly flavored, it's served whole on the plate with rice, refried black beans, queso fresco and some tortillas to make fish tacos, but we just snapped it up by itself by the forkful.
The owners are also working on a makeover of the restaurant interior and upstairs bar, adding a sliced-in-half Airstream trailer to serve beer and El Patio's famously strong margaritas out of with a taco truck flair. They are also bringing in Houston graffiti artist GONZO247 to make temporary works on the tabletops, and hiring a DJ to spin Latin jazz (think Buena Vista Social Club) mixed with hip-hop.
Jones' menu is still being integrated — at dinner look for the mushroom enchiladas and lamb tamales — but the favorites aren't going anywhere. (And for the classic Felix queso you can still hit the Westheimer location).
For a revolution, this is pretty glorious. It's proof that interior Mexican and Tex-Mex flavors can coexist beautifully.