Gabe Thompson is the chef behind one of New York City’s most successful Italian restaurant groups; he presides over the kitchens of dell’anima, Anfora, L’Artusi, and L’Apicio. But for the past several years, the Texas native has been quietly pushing for a Tex-Mex restaurant, since he sees it as a gaping hole in the Big Apple’s dining options.
“In New York, everyone is super-opinionated about pizza, right?” he says. “Well, Tex-Mex is the pizza of Texas. We just called it Mexican food. If you’re going to go out to eat, and you maybe don’t go out to eat so much, you’re going to get Tex-Mex food.” This is the food Thompson ate with his grandparents when he’d visit them outside of San Antonio, and this is the food he cooks at home.
Four to five years ago, he became convinced that the city needed a good Tex-Mex restaurant, “like what David Chang did with ramen, but with Tex-Mex,” he says. He started holding tastings for his business partners, and the group went as far as a Community Board meeting for a restaurant space, only to have the address fall through and the plans put on hold.
Thompson got his chance to explore the cuisine again via Bravo’s Best New Restaurant; L’Apicio (13 East 1st Street, 212-533-7400) is competing against restaurants across the country for that title via a series of food challenges. For the semifinal, the restaurants were tasked with pulling off a pop-up. Thompson decided to showcase Tex-Mex in a concept called Hondo. “I was like, dude, this could make us lose the competition because it’s so simple, but I think we should do it,” he says. The team did not lose — it advanced to the final round, and that episode airs on Wednesday, April 1.
In celebration, Thompson is hosting a Tex-Mex pop-up brunch at L’Apicio this weekend, and he’ll serve some of what was highlighted on TV in addition to favorite Tex-Mex brunch dishes. Look for a Frito pie crowned with a poached egg (an idea Thompson credits to a run-in with Wylie Dufresne at the Feast of San Gennaro a few years back), migas, fajitas, and a chicken-fried steak with chorizo gravy and a pepper jack biscuit. “We’ll have queso, and people can pimp it out with guac or chile con carne,” the chef adds. Thompson’s wife, Katherine, who is the pastry chef of the group, will turn out chocolate pecan pie and tres leches cake for dessert. And the bar is serving a handful of specialty cocktails, too, including a michelada and Mexican negroni, and it’ll have bottles of Negra Modelo and Shiner Bock.
While the pop-up is one-weekend-only, Thompson says winning the semifinal and the recent rise in interest in Tex-Mex in NYC (see, for example, Javelina, that Tex-Mex restaurant in Gramercy that’s currently one of the trendiest places in town) are confirmation that this is an unfilled niche. So the pop-up is serving as a test for what could become a brick-and-mortar concept, too. “Brunch is a good way to test it on a New York audience,” he says.
Brunch runs Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; you can make a reservation by calling the restaurant at 212-533-7400.
A Best New Restaurant Pop-Up by Team L’Apicio
Hondo Queso $8
add: Guacamole $2 Black Beans $.50 Chili con Carne $1 All of the Above $3
Breakfast Taco housemade flour tortilla, soft scrambled eggs, beans, cheese $3
choice of fillings ($.50 each): Bacon, Housemade Chorizo, Potato, Cheese, Migas, Beans
Frito Pie chili con carne, jack cheese, salsa, poached egg $10
Apple Jicama Salad goat cheese, pecans, jalapeno, cilantro $14
Guacamole chilies, cilantro, onions $10
Migas tortilla strips, onion, chilies, tomato with jack cheese, served with beans, rice and tortillas $14
Huevos Rancheros cheese quesadilla, 2 eggs, ranchero sauce served with rice and beans $14
French Toast maple pecans and caramelized banana $16
Fajitas onions, peppers, housemade flour tortillas, rice and beans, garnishes, with choice of steak, chicken, shrimp $25
Chicken Fried Steak chorizo gravy, pepper jack biscuit $20
Soft Scramble Eggs
Chocolate Pecan Pie