First Bite: Blanco Tacos + Tequila
Sam Fox, the multiple-time James Beard Award-nominated serial restaurateur of Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts just opened the fifth iteration of his Tex-Mex restaurant, Blanco Tacos + Tequila, in the Galleria.
The chic digs reside next to Fig and Olive and just below Nobu in what is undoubtedly some of the city’s most exclusive (and, probably, expensive) culinary real estate. The aesthetic is ultra-modern and hipster-fab. In a word, it is “gram-worthy.” Neon blue letters spell “Te Amo Tequila” (I Love You Tequila) on a brightly colored wall decorated with 50 or 60 protruding planters. Tabletops are made of beautiful hardwood that was hand-selected by Fox himself. The well-lit contemporary bar has a mild tiki vibe, with bottles placed overhead on rope-suspended shelves. Finally, floor to ceiling windows give way to a sprawling patio bar that seats nearly as many patrons as the inside dining room and bar. The casual Tex-Mex fits right into its new Galleria digs, feeling not at all under-dressed beside its swanky neighbors.
Houston Food Finder was invited to a media tasting just days after the grand opening. First off, let’s face it: it takes guts for an out-of-town restaurateur to open a Tex-Mex restaurant in a city built on mom and pop kitchens that serve some of the finest enchiladas, fajitas and queso in the world. So, it’s fair to say that the expectations of Houston diners (and food writers) are high.
Despite the beautiful interior, it takes more than neon letters and house plants to thrive in Houston’s competitive Mexican food scene. There are already many revered Tex-Mex joints and a high bar that Blanco needs to reach. The menu is inarguably innovative. One example is the Cheese Crisps — pizza-like crisps made of fried cheese with savory toppings. There is a simple cheese-and-tomato variety, as well as heartier versions like the one with bacon, french fries, charred onions and an over-easy egg. They aren’t exactly Tex-Mex, but an original concept and a well-executed one at that. The crispy cheese crust makes a tasty base for egg yoke-soaked fries and crunchy bacon.
As far as Tex-Mex staples, there are some menu highlights as well as dishes that left us wanting. The housemade corn tortillas are delightfully thick, doughy and heartier than the average corn tortilla. In fact, in terms of feel and taste, they’re something of a corn and flour hybrid.
The Wagyu carne asada fajitas, on the other hand, were sadly underwhelming. More beans and guac than actual carne, and a tomatillo-soy marinade that masked any Wagyu flavor in a spicy salsa bath. The Arizona chain may want to reconsider its apparent west coast recipe for queso as well. With a sour cream-like consistency, the Warm Queso appetizer at Blanco is more reminiscent of Cali-Mex cheese dip than proper Tex-Mex queso.
The excellent enchiladas, though, might make diners forget the so-called queso. Both the pork chile verde and caramelized sweet potato are rave-worthy. The former is a more traditional enchilada, with tender pork, roasted pasilla pepper, tomatillo, cilantro and Cotija queso fresco. The latter is a well-executed vegetarian option of a Tex-Mex classic with entirely unexpected flavors like grilled portobello, kale, zucchini, manchego cheese and the aforementioned caramelized sweet potatoes.
When it comes to dessert, local competition is of lesser concern thanks to Fox Restaurant Concepts’ executive pastry chef, Plinio Sandalio. The James Beard Award nominee and Bolivian native grew up in Houston and has worked in some of the finest kitchens in both H-Town and Austin (Congress, Textile, Pax-Americana, Carillon, even a brief stint serving drinks at Anvil). The multi-talented chef is now running the dessert show for all of Fox’s restaurants, creating incredible dessert’s like Blanco’s brown sugar caramel flan. The sweet custard pastry is delicate, well textured and topped with berries and whipped cream.
If Blanco has a secret weapon to win over guests, though, it’s the tequila and mezcal program, the creative platform upon which the food is elevated. The margaritas are deliciously blended with housemade sours to ensure balanced sweetness. The house rendition is a blend of Cuervo Especial, Patron Citronge orange liqueur and the house sour. It is an expertly made, minimalist cocktail that, at $9.50, falls below average for Galleria-area drink prices. There are also tequila and mezcal flights, along with a list of more ornate margaritas like the Blackberry Clementine with hibiscus sea salt.
All in all, Blanco Tacos + Tequila gets a “wait and see” rating upon first taste. What they do well, they do extremely well. That includes the ambiance, fresh ingredients used in the dishes and a surprising amount of scratch-made items. (Very little is pre-packaged or pre-made in the chef-run kitchen).
Blanco’s downfall may be the regional differences in their fare from what is expected in Houston. We want more than a hint of beef in our Wagyu tacos and steaming hot queso that drips down our chins. We want stacks of flour tortillas with our fajitas and prefer migas over fried cheese.
That said, a little change never hurt anyone, and diversification can be a good thing. Fox experienced a great deal of success in Houston with Flowerchild and North Italia, both of which are also in the Uptown vicinity (and, oddly, are being divested). Blanco faces a steeper climb than those and the Houston Tex-Mex crowd is no lightweight division. Time will tell if Blanco earns its place in the H-Town scene or if Houstonians send it packing.