One of the best things I tasted at ElBolero was a calabaza and huitlacoche taco.
One of the worst things I tasted at El Bolero was a calabaza and huitlacoche taco.
Each started with a terrific handmade corn tortilla. The failed one was piled with barely cooked slices of zucchini and red bell pepper, nearly raw onion, a whole uncooked zucchini flower, about three crumbs of cotija cheese and a few corn kernels. There was exactly no discernible huitlacoche (corn fungus) in the bland and crunchy assemblage. What a waste of a zucchini blossom.
The fabulous one was filled lusciously with slender, nicely grilled strips of zucchini; soft, sweet onion; charred red bell pepper; lots of huitlacoche; ample crumbled cotija; and kernels of corn. The satiny huitlacoche, with its subtle, earthy, cornfield-umami funk, was the X factor pulling the flavors together delightfully. Taco home run.
Sure, any restaurant can have a bad day, but the newest Design District establishment from Richard and Tiffanee Ellman, the owners of nearby Oak and Pakpao, is wildly inconsistent.
The place has plenty going for it, beginning with the vibrant dining room. Vivid green tiles on the bar and fronting the open kitchen look terrific with the bright yellow bar stools. A clever openwork ceiling is as cool as the black-and-white tiled floor, which feels very Mexico City. From the cute potted succulents on the bare wood tables to the brightly colored mosaic artworks, the design touches definitely sing. In the evening, the patio is pleasant, though at lunchtime no one sat there, hot and harsh as it was despite big red umbrellas that somehow didn’t catch the shade. The restaurant is open for breakfast, too.
The excellent chips - thin, crisply fried quarters of corn tortillas - that land on the table when you're seated come with a salsa verde that's tangy and piquant at its best, though the inclusion of avocado (was it unripe?) sometimes made it bland and messed with the texture. A red salsa had nice smoky guajillo and ancho chile flavor but not much behind it. Recently a likable third salsa, a chunky, fresh red salsa crudo, joined the lineup. Why am I going on and on about the salsas? You may well need them to wake up a dish or two.
The ceviches didn't need reviving; they were wonderful straight from the kitchen - fresh, jazzy and thoughtful. Shrimp in an aguachile marinade, green with cilantro and lime, was cool and delicious, with diced cucumber and a touch of habanero chile; red snapper had a lovely light touch of sweetness from watermelon. Most unusual were thin slices of crudo-like scallop "carpaccio" layered with paper-thin rounds of green apple, red radishes and serrano chile, pink grapefruit supremes, ripe avocado and cilantro leaves, all awash in a gentle grapefruit marinade.
After that, anything could happen at El Bolero, partly because as we go to press, the Ellmans have announced they let go opening chef Hugo Galván, brought on John Tesar as chef-partner and hired New York chef Jacob "Jake" Barrios Sanchez to run the kitchen.
It remains to be seen whether the change will improve unevenness in the cooking; meanwhile, there are also issues in the dining room. The service can be outstanding, as it was one evening when I dined on the patio. Or it can be abominable, like the night a waiter faked his way through an explanation of the mescal list, failed to mention the fact that one of our starters wasn't available (it just never showed up) and reliably disappeared when you needed him.
That can put a damper on an evening no matter how the food is - and that evening our plates mostly disappointed. A dreamy-sounding crema de flor de calabaza (zucchini blossom) soup tasted like not much else besides heavy cream. A chile relleno de jaiba was a barely cooked poblano filled with crabmeat set on mushy white rice and a big puddle of sauce that looked and tasted exactly like the soup.
I was intrigued by the mention of chapulín (grasshopper) salsa in a scallop dish. It turned out to be a minuscule dot crowning each scallop, with a pesto-like texture and beguiling flavor, like a pulverized version of the limy, garlicky, crunchy toasted chapulines that are a specialty of Oaxaca. A bite of the pretty salad that shared the plate (along with mushy "lobster rice") left my mouth coated with oil: Dudes! What happened to the vinegar? Anyway, loved those tiny dots of sauce.
Other nights were more successful, though the kitchen was always running out of things. Lobster "fajitas," once I got my hands on the plate, was a split lobster tail, its meat nicely grilled then reassembled in its shell on a cushion of white rice; one supposed the oily grilled peppers and such underneath the shell justified the fajitas appellation. Cochinita pibil, a dish I usually love (long-braised, achiote-and-orange- flavored, banana-leaf-wrapped pork), was fine but forgettable; a chile-pepper-dusted skirt steak was underseasoned and underseared, though I liked the shrimp-filled blue corn quesadillas that came with it.
For now I'd say if you'd like to go and enjoy the room, stick with ceviche and tacos. Most of the tacos come four to an order, so sharing is best; or ask to mix two types on one plate.
You can watch as a cook shaves pork off the imposing trompo (Mexico City-style vertical spit) in the open kitchen for tacos al pastor. The pork had good flavor, yet the tacos were out of balance and a bit dry and austere: too much raw pineapple (caramelized by a grill would have been nicer), not enough salsa or porky juices. Doctored up with reserved salsa, they were delicious. Same story for fish tacos - crisply fried red snapper the day I had them, in blue corn tortillas. These were dressed up like Baja-style tacos de pescado, with cabbage, crema fresca and more, but they needed lime and salsa to come to life. Not a big deal, to be sure, but at $17 for three, not ideal.
If you're feeling like a sweet after that, skip the hard churros and stiff flan, and go instead for the arroz con leche cake: Think of a tres leches cake that crashed into rice pudding and got spooned onto a plate with a dollop of satiny, rich, caramel-like cajeta and squiggles of berry sauce.
Cross your fingers and hope that the kitchen hasn't run out.
El Bolero (2 stars)
Price: $$$ (starters $5 to $15, tacos $10 to $17 for an order of three or four, main courses $12 to $28, breakfast dishes $6 to $12, brunch dishes $9 to $12.50, desserts $9)
Service: Luck of the draw - ranges from incompetent to outstanding.
Ambience: An attractive, casual dining room done in bright colors and an upbeat style that evokes contemporary Mexico City
Noise level: Can be noisy at dinner when busy
Location: 1201 Oak Lawn Ave., Dallas; 214-741-1986; elboleromexican.com
Hours: Monday-Thursday 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 11p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Reservations: Not accepted, but you can call 30 minutes ahead and put your name on a waiting list.
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with an extensive list of tequilas and mescals, five Mexican beers on tap and more by the bottle. A list of about 20 wines available by the glass and bottle ($32 to $60) includes some appealing OldWorld whites; food-friendly reds are harder to come by. There are more choices (about 40) on a pricier ($33 to $390) list of wines by the bottle.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor