Ronnie Killen has changed at his mind. Or, at least, shifted his focus.
Killen’s TMX, the restaurant he’s opening next month in Pearland, will still serve Tex-Mex classics like queso (both white and yellow), enchiladas, fajitas, and margaritas, but that’s not all it will serve. Instead, Killen wants to focus on the regional Mexican dishes he’s become inspired by over the past five months.
Taken together, Killen wants TMX to be as different from most Tex-Mex restaurants as Killen's STQ is from regular steakhouses. That’s the lesson he learned from opening Killen’s Burgers — a pretty good version of a familiar cuisine isn’t good enough. Diners have higher expectations for the chef’s restaurants.
“A lot of people are going to be expecting a Pappasito’s, or a Gringo’s, or a Ninfa’s,” Killen tells CultureMap. “I talked to [Gringo’s owner] Russell Ybarra for a long time. He told me people come for queso, cheese enchiladas, fajitas, and margaritas . . . I’m going to have my own spin on it and make it more regional Mexican cuisine."
Later in the conversation, he makes his goals clear. “I’m shooting for a top 10 restaurant again,” he says. “I’m a competitive person. I want it to be a destination restaurant, where people go because they know I’ve done my homework.”
That homework has involved trips to both Cabo San Lucas and Mexico City where Killen has taken cooking classes and dined at restaurants like Pujol and Quintonil — widely considered two of the finest Mexican restaurants in the world. During those travels, he’s developed an appreciation for different styles of mole, salsa, and other dishes that aren’t part of the Tex-Mex cannon.
“This is completely out of my comfort zone,” the chef says. “Getting outside of what you [normally] do is fun. As a chef, you love to learn. You love to taste different methods and [experience] different cooking techniques.”
Diners who stop by Killen’s Barbecue this week may get to taste one of his experiments, a barbacoa beef rib that gets smoked then braised. At Killen’s TMX, it would be served with homemade corn tortillas and a version of elotes.
Oct 25, 2018 at 6:38am PDT
Trips to Cabo have inspired Gulf seafood dishes prepared in the style of the city’s cuisine. Killen thinks that adding the smoke element will help TMX stand out from other Mexican restaurants in the Houston area.
“I’ve been to Xochi and Caracol. I’ve tried a lot of their food,” he says. “I don’t think people will think I’m copying Hugo. It’s not going to be like that. It’s going to be different. That’s what makes it interesting and fun.”
Killen also wants to empower his cooks by asking them to contribute dishes to the menu that reflect where they’re from. If one of them comes up with an especially strong dishes, it will go on the menu with his name, as in, “enchiladas de Torres.”
“As a cook or sous chef, having your menu item on the menu, that’s what drove you. It was always an honor,” he says. By putting a cook’s name on the dish, “they get to take ownership and pride in it . . .Those culinaries make us who we are, and I want to glorify them.”
Beyond the food, Killen wants TMX’s interior to look and feel Mexican, too. Initial plans for only minimal renovations have given way to a more elaborate remodeling that includes tiles, tables, chairs, sconces, lighting fixtures, and other design elements sourced from Mexico.
“Our glassware is from Guadalajara, it’s all hand-blown,” he says. “I never thought I’d spend this much on glassware; it’s almost more expensive then Riedel stems.”
Deedee Killen’s, the chef’s ex-wife and partner in Killen’s Steakhouse, will lead a beverage program focused on tequila and mezcal. She will also bring her experience as a partner in acclaimed Clear Lake-area bar Rosewater to the restaurant’s cocktail offerings.
“It’s going to be a cool place,” Killen says. “I can’t wait for it to open.”