West U Switcheroo
Under-the-radar West U. restaurant reboots via new partnership with Local Foods owner
The time has come for changes at El Topo. Chef Tony Luhrman’s self-described “New Western” restaurant in West University has partnered with veteran Houston restaurateur Benjy Levit (Local Foods, Eau Tour) to rebrand, renovate, and reconcept.
Final details regarding the timing of when El Topo will close have yet to be established, as it won’t happen until the City of West University Place approves the restaurant’s plans. Tentatively, those approvals are expected in the next few weeks with renovations expected to take approximately two months. If all goes according to plan, the restaurant will close no later than mid-July and reopen after Labor Day. The restaurant will announce the exact timing via social media.
When the restaurant reemerges, it will be known as Teshica — a word Luhrman tells CultureMap he created from the Spanish word for Mexico’s indigenous tribes and the Caddo word that became "Texas." Those linguistic roots aim to capture the ethos behind his cooking, which draws upon traditional Mexican food, Texas staples, and his professional experiences in a diverse array of kitchens.
Those myriad influences have always been reflected in El Topo’s menu, which covers everything from tacos made with tortillas made from nixtamalized heirloom corn to fine dining-style center-of-plate meat and seafood entrees and starters such as guacamole and Brussels sprouts. It’s an eclectic approach that reflects the chef's life experiences.
“At the end of the day, I’m not trying to cook Mexican food. I’m not trying to cook Texian food. I’m trying to cook the food that feels correct for me given my path in life,” Luhrman says. “That path is one of a mixed-up culture, weird mutt of a person — part Jewish, part Mexican, part psychotic Texan rancher from San Antonio — who grew up cooking tacos and carne guisada.”
The journey from El Topo to Teshica is a complicated one that starts with the restaurant’s roots as a food truck that built a following for its tacos and quesadillas at events and the Urban Harvest farmers market. Its location in West U. opened in January 2020, just before the pandemic upended all aspects of people’s daily routines, including trying new, slightly quirky restaurants. Although Luhrman has drawn some media attention — he’s a two-time winner of the Golden Cleaver award at the Butcher’s Ball, earned recognition as one of the best new restaurants of 2021 in Texas Monthly, and has CultureMap Tastemaker Award nominations — El Topo struggled financially. Luhrman says he’s taken out loans to keep the restaurant afloat, but El Topo had reached the end of its financial rope.
Through a connection with Urban Harvest director of farmers markets Tyler Horne, Luhrman reached out to Levit and Local Foods chef-partner Dylan Murray to make one last attempt to keep the restaurant going. To Luhrman’s relief, Levit saw an opportunity to transform El Topo in a way that would grow the business and make it more appealing to West U. residents.
“Benjy, Dylan, and I had instant rapport. Sometimes you meet people you see completely eye-to-eye with,” he says. “I feel really honored they want to partner up.”
Working together, they developed a plan for Teshica that would preserve El Topo’s staple dishes like its Houston taco (made with 44 Farms barbacoa) and its brisket-based suadero taco while allowing Luhrman to serve a more elevated dinner menu that will pair well with an expanded wine list. Specific dishes are still under development, but Luhrman makes it clear that they’ll be similar in approach to his tacos, which use good quality proteins, tortillas made with nixtamalized, heirloom corn from Mexico, and housemade salsas. Expect a tightly edited list of dishes based around seasonal ingredients.
Interior changes will be handled by local construction firm Pruitt Structures with design work by Brittany Vaughn, the same interior designer who helped Levit create the distinct looks for Lees Den, his Rice Village wine bar, and Eau Tour, the French restaurant he opened about Local Foods earlier this year. Plans also include redesigning the restaurant’s kitchen for a more efficient workflow and bringing in new equipment.
Along with a new menu and a new look, Teshica will adopt a new service model that’s inspired by Birdie’s, the natural wine bar/restaurant in Austin that’s known for its refined take on counter service. Diners will order at a counter then have their meals brought to them at the usual pace of a full service meal. For Luhrman, one of the benefits of this model is that it eliminates the anxiety of walking into an unfamiliar restaurant and struggling to get a busy server’s attention.
“If you are there for the first time, the counter service guarantees you an interaction with a server in a meaningful way so you can be guided through the menu,” he says. Later, he adds, “For dinner, we’re trying something a little different for people in Houston. You belly up to the counter. You ask all your questions. It takes a little time, but as soon as you’re done at the counter, you’ve planned out your meal.”
Through a representative, Levit declined CultureMap’s request for comment about his plans to partner with Luhrman.
Still, diners will already notice one sign of the new partnership. Local Foods has started serving specials that utilize El Topo’s tortillas, according to Luhrman. Going forward, Teshica packaged goods, including tortillas, pickles, and salsas, will be available at the restaurant for people to take home, similar to the model adopted by Local Foods Market.
For now, Luhrman and his staff are telling customers that changes are coming. They’re making plans for a farewell weekend that will celebrate what El Topo has meant to both its employees and and its customers. While they'll miss certain aspects of what existed before, the upgrades also mean a high level of excitement and optimism. For Luhrman, Teshica presents an opportunity to focus on the parts of the business that inspired him from the beginning.
“Ultimately, I love food. I love cooking. It’s one of the things I’m best at. I’ve been working really hard for almost two decades to make the best food possible. I had to step away from that to keep the business running,” Luhrman says. “Launching this restaurant is an opportunity for me to refocus on the food I really want to cook.”