First look at The Maverick

Grilled octopus and calamari

Despite some opening night hiccups, The Maverick will soon become one of the best restaurants in the city.

The dishes from chef/partner Chris Carlson deftly balance a comfortable yet refined sensibility, while the atmosphere and service are polished but never stuffy. It’s truly a place that’s great for dressing up for a special occasion, or dressing down for a drink and a bite.

Carlson’s strong performance in the kitchen finds its equal in the management from director of operations Miguel Ardid, and sommelier/hospitality director Joshua Thomas and owner/partner Pete Selig. Together, they have created an impressive restaurant that’s likely to stay filled.

Cauliflower, turmeric, pickled raisins, slivered almonds

If it’s any indication, on the first night, the first guests stayed, lingered and kept ordering. In a way, that’s a great sign, but it also caused some backups for later reservations.

Flatiron steak

Everything on the menu is a la carte, so diners can create their own plates. That’s the idea behind the restaurant’s tagline of “make your own rules.”  Those dishes were superb. A mixture of roasted cauliflower with turmeric, pickled raisins and almonds succeed the best in a strong lineup, while grilled octopus and calamari were tender, juicy and filled with flavor for calabrian pepper oil, fingerling potatoes and accents of fried kale.

Meanwhile, a flatiron steak and a salmon fillet arrived at the table grilled to a perfect medium rare temperature. You don’t need to order sauces, but there are plenty available. Go old school and try the bordelaise with the steak.

Grilled salmon

The salmon includes a side of mango chutney, which adds a nice bit of brightness. For the fish, the flavors and textures of the chutney elevate, rather than compensate.

I could go on with the compliments, but I’ll stop with these initial observations.

To be sure, opening night saw a technology glitch that delayed orders getting to the kitchen. This backed up an already busy evening and caused plenty of confusion with orders getting to tables.

Very crisp fries

But at the same time, the service staff never lost their collective cool in the face of an early challenge. Servers and managers worked very hard to keep diners updates on the progress of their tables. This way, even when guests had to wait for a while, they at least knew that the staff was keeping tabs on them and serving them as well as possible.

The opening glitches will work out soon enough. What’s important is that all the elements are in place for The Maverick to grow into a must-visit restaurant. I can’t wait to go back.

Fade to Cab cocktail

 

 

 

 

Crab cake sliders
Profiteroles
A riff on a cheesecake
Blistered green beans, cherry tomatoes and shishito peppers

Replenishing my soul at Guajillo’s with tacos from Mexico City

Tacos al pastor
Pitch perfect tacos al pastor at Guajillo’s

Just as a favorite burger joint, pizza spot or deli not far from home is a staple of American life, the neighborhood restaurante gives a feeling of home and identity in Mexican cities. Fortunately, Guajillo’s brings that feeling of a homey Mexican spot to San Antonio. It doesn’t matter that the restaurant sits at a busy intersection, just off a major freeway. It takes me back every time I go.

The dishes are very good, and the table salsa is outrageously tasty. I proclaimed it among the nation’s best for Epicurious several years ago, and I still think Guajillo’s is amazing. It’s still a pain to get to and it still looks like a chain from the outside — but it also still feeds my soul. There aren’t many places that take me back to Mexico, so I treasure the ones that do.

Guajillo's salsa
Guajillo’s table salsa includes some type of magic.

So what is it about this place that transports me to Mexico and makes me feel like a zócalo is nearby? Part of it has to be the clientele — lots of working-class families, many speaking Spanish with accents that proclaim their homes in central Mexico.

Another part is definitely the dishes. I get my fix of pitch-perfect tacos al pastor, in which the achiote, citrus and other spices all come together on oil-moistened corn tortillas. The broth of a gorgeous tortilla soup focuses more on dried chiles than chicken soup, and the thick tortilla ribbons stay crisp and bring lots of wonderful corn tortilla flavor.

Tortilla soup
Outrageously good tortilla soup works perfect for a cold day. Or a hot one.

If I’m in the mood for a mole poblano or a mole verde, I can get my fix here. And when I’m not craving the tacos al pastor, I’m getting chilaquiles. These are the ones I first tried and fell in love with when I first visited Mexico. Unlike the Texas version of the dish with cheese and egg, the interior Mexico version is little more than crisp pieces of corn tortillas cooked in green salsa, topped with cotija and crema. The key is that the corn tortillas need some heft, and they hold their texture best if they’re a little stale when first cooked. Guajillo’s makes their chilaquiles with shredded chicken. Sometimes, I’ll ask for it without the chicken, for the flavor that keeps me rooted in my ancestral cuisine.

To wash it down, I like a Bohemia, but my wife likes the margaritas and my son prefers the vanilla sweetness of horchata. In fact, when my wife and I were dating and when we were first married, it was one of our go-to spots. Because we have more demands on our time, we don’t visit it as often as we used to. But when we to, it’s always still a treat.