Carefully, I lifted the edge of the thick, soft blue corn tortilla, and looked inside. Nestled in its scorching depths, I had seen nothing in a Texan taco: three kinds of mushrooms – lion’s mane, chestnut, and oyster – plus toasted pumpkin seeds and a hint of citrus ponzu. The smell that emanated from it was earthy and dark. I took a bite of the tortilla. The masa smelled of fields scorched by the sun. “Do you make your own tortillas here?” I asked the enthusiastic waiter to Houston El Topo. “From scratch,” she said. “We made yours this morning. We even grind corn. I looked across the table at one of my two friends devouring a Papa Costra: big potatoes folded in a tan and scandalously fondant wrapper made of queso blanco cooked a la plancha. The other was to bite into bites of Funky Brussels sprinkled with shoyu, Japan’s nuanced soy sauce. It was not a routine Mexican menu.
I was on one of my first trips outside of Austin in over a year, vaccinated and ready to rewrite my column. El Topo was one of the places I was hoping to visit in Houston, mainly because I was dying to try the Houston Taco, a rightfully famous extravaganza of braised beef cheek anointed with epioxidized aioli. I had classified the place as a taqueria, but clearly needed to revise my assessment. Yes, there were tacos galore during the day, but I soon found out that the weekend dinner consisted of tenderloin, duck and caviar, not to mention the gnocchi and, among the desserts, the shortcake to rhubarb. It was the Walt Whitman of little neighborhood restaurants – it had loads of them.
The company started in 2015 as a food truck, the passion of chef-owner and native of San Antonio, Tony Luhrman. At the time, then 29, he left a career in software and design to do what he loved: cooking. From the start, his ambitious mobile restaurant grabbed attention. Fans online celebrated his homemade bacon, rejoiced over his homemade prickly pear kombucha, and raved about his flan-a-cotta (a luscious vanilla dessert that crosses flan with panna cotta). At dinner, devotees posted snapshots of the Yucatán chopped salad, its crimson cabbage leaves as vivid as rose petals. And every week, yet another new customer was laughing at Big D’s expense with the Dallas Quesadilla, a flour tortilla filled with generic cottage cheese. At the end of 2019, Luhrman decided he was doing well enough to grow; in January, he moved his business to a small, white, square building in the upscale University of the West district. Two months later, the pandemic shut down the state. The rest of the year was tough, but with heavy lunch activity and an increasingly curious clientele (taking advantage of the take-out options, the cheerful patio, and the spaced out dining area) El Topo has success.
The day after my first visit, I woke up before nine to meet another dearly missed friend and try the restaurant’s breakfast, starting with a cardamom butter latte, made with coffee from the local Little roaster. Dreamer. The Gringo breakfast taco was an egg classic with most notably smoked bacon tucked into an herb flour tortilla. The Muffina featured similar ingredients sandwiched into a homemade English muffin.
Beyond its food, the little place charmed us, with its Saltillo tile floor, potted palms and thorny snake plants, and colorful strings of lights outside. Arranged on a table left vacant for social distancing, there were original items like an ox cart and a statuette of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A sign above a pot on the counter read, “Insert a witty pun. Dozens of well-read international cookbooks filled a shelf. During a coffee refill I noticed a quote on the front wall of Alejandro Jodorowsky, the director of a strange 1970 Mexican art film titled – Wait For It –El Topo.
The next time I walked in, a few days later, with another group of friends, we got the best seat in the house: the large faux leather booth near a picture window in the front. We had all starved ourselves to make room for dinner, so we started with the most delicious dish on the menu: foie gras. The luxurious goose liver was judiciously golden, its satiny texture enhanced by delicate hints of toast and jam made from fresh strawberries picked in Cleveland, an hour north; a pinch of marigold petals completed the pretty picture. After so much richness, the ceviche seemed like a good idea. The colorful version here – chunks of creamy avocado, red tomato, firm Gulf snapper, and fried pumpkin seeds – is submerged in a fiery tri-citrus marinade, a variation of leche de tigre from Peru or milk from tiger. Next to it were masa cabbages with blue corn.
By that point we were ready for some serious protein, so I was happy to find filet mignon on the menu. We ordered it medium rare, but I was mystified by the “aged PB” rating. Could letters represent. . . Peanut Butter? Why, yes, they could. A few years ago, there was a craze in a little corner of the culinary world for aging cuts of beef in a chilled butter shell. Luhrman had taken the notion not only to heart, but to the next level by adding peanut butter to the mix. It might sound strange, but I’m here to tell you our steak was amazing: plump, pinkish slices that didn’t need the red-eyed sauce that came with it, a variation on the coffee-based Southern classic. black and three gravy. (To answer your burning question, no, the steak didn’t taste like peanut butter, thank goodness.)
As the evening progressed, we made way for the duck confit, a plump, succulent and brassy thigh and thigh. Next to it was mashed butternut infused with melted bone marrow. After that, the dessert seemed redundant, but we were drawn to the three surprisingly different choices on the menu. The most common was rhubarb shortcake; the most successful was the flan-a-cotta of liquid silk, with the spiciness of goat’s milk in the cajeta that accompanied it. But the one that caught my eye was the pineapple mezcal cheesecake, which was making its menu debut that night. Alas, the texture was a bit too loose, but the fresh, grassy notes of the mezcal gave something bright and fun to an often heavy dessert.
By the time we walked out of the restaurant on the warm spring night, I had more questions than usual for my post-visit phone call to the chef. Our conversation spanned a good two hours over two days, remembering Luhrman’s Mexican great-grandmother, the lessons he learned from Hispanic cooks in San Antonio, and the recipes he learned. from his collection of sauce-stained cookbooks, which covers styles, Country desserts from Lee Bailey at Tacos: recipes and provocations by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman. “Every culture borrows from all other cultures,” he said as we ended the conversation, “and there’s a truly beautiful life that you can breathe into a familiar dish using a different technique. I love it when you eat something new that isn’t quite what you expected, but it surprises you in a lovely way.
Come to think of it, that’s not a bad definition of what I love about visiting new restaurants: being surprised in a beautiful way. I certainly was this time.