Food

Tex-Mex Moment: Javelina Celebrates the Singular Cuisine of the Lone Star State

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When Matt Post and his chef Rich Caruso opened Tex-Mex lair Javelina (119 East 18th Street, 212-539-0202) on 18th Street a couple of months back, they steeled themselves for a slow-burning opening. “We didn’t open with fanfare,” says Caruso. “We were gonna open on a Monday night, but we weren’t quite ready, so we pushed it back two days. There was a snowstorm that night, and suddenly there were 80 or 90 people here. I read on Eater a few days later that we were the hottest new restaurant. All of sudden, the reservations book was filling so quickly, it was a challenge to keep up.”

Post expected to ramp up through the summer by luring in Texans, and then finally, via word of mouth, really come online in the fall. “We underestimated the power of the Texas network,” says the restaurateur. And, quite likely, New York’s hunger for a Mexican restaurant like this one — Javelina hums with raucous, casual energy; margaritas flow freely; and the food is excellent while also being unfussy. There are enchiladas, fajitas, and queso on the menu. Plates are huge, and tortillas are made of flour. As Caruso says, “I’m not deconstructing anything.”

In many ways, Javelina is the very opposite of the high-concept restaurants that have characterized this city’s Mexican scene in recent years. For those of us who grew up in western cities, where beloved family restaurants hawked unpretentious platters of fajitas and baskets of free chips and salsa, going to this restaurant can feel like going home. That is drawing crowds of people who didn’t even realize they were homesick for this food — it’s like finally scratching an unreachable itch.

New York has flirted with Tex-Mex before; the cuisine proliferated widely in the Seventies and Eighties, says Post, after fajitas started trending in Houston and a restaurateur in Dallas rigged up an old 7-Eleven machine and invented the frozen margarita. “Suddenly,” he says, “a lot of people were scrambling frantically to open places to sell margaritas and crappy fajitas. They spread everywhere. And they were god-awful,” even in Texas, although the state had hundreds of years of history to draw on when it came to cooking this fare.

According to Post, Tex-Mex has been brewing, stylistically speaking, since the Spanish arrived in San Antonio in the 1500s. They brought wheat over to make communion wafers and convert the heathens; the indigenous people in the area took the flour and started making tortillas. Cumin came to the region from the Canary Islands, native chiles were integral to flavoring slightly off meat, and processed cheese became a staple sometime in the twentieth century. The border between Texas and Mexico wasn’t really set until about 150 years ago, and there are still areas with a lot of crossover, so this food was characteristic of the region, and distinct from other parts of Mexico farther south.

In Texas, the fare is so integrated into the culture that Tex-Mex is what many Texans think of when they think of home. Post, who’s a native of Dallas, was no exception; he moved to New York City ten years ago and immediately started pining for the food. “I’d meet a Texan every single night I was out,” he says. “The conversation always directed toward, where do you go for great Mexican in the city? They’d sigh like I’d asked them about their dying dog and say, ‘There’s nothing good in New York.’ I had trouble believing that — how could there not be a great Tex-Mex restaurant here?”

But after months of searching, Post had to acknowledge that his fellow Lone Star State natives were right — and he began to obsess over opening a restaurant of his own. He was ready to pull the trigger in 2007, and went as far as quitting his job to start looking for a space. But he could read the impending economic crash in the tea leaves, and so he delayed. Two years ago, he revived the dream, and he found Caruso through a recruiter to help execute it.

Caruso had retired from construction and decided he wanted to work in kitchens. He went to culinary school, and then started taking line jobs, with the idea of learning the business from the bottom up. He was drawn to Mexican restaurants — he worked at Rosa Mexicano — and he spent some time working for Hill Country on Texas-style barbecue. On a barbecue research trip to Austin, he fell in love with Tex-Mex — “particularly breakfast tacos,” he says — and began mulling a Tex-Mex concept in New York.

The pair united and landed the 18th Street address, which Post says felt like it had good karma, since it was once home to his favorite New York City Mexican restaurant, Los Dos Molinos. Post hired a designer from Austin, because he wanted someone who really understood Tex-Mex and would take the concept seriously by pulling back on the kitsch.

When it came time to write a menu, Post and Caruso knew there were a few things they really needed to get right if they were to win over Texans. Number one was queso. “There are a handful of items, when you come to a Tex-Mex place, that are indicators of authenticity,” Post says. “By far and away the biggest is queso. Over the last couple of years, as I’ve been telling Texans what I’m doing, 99 times out of 100, their first question is, ‘Are you going to have queso?’ When I say, ‘Of course,’ they’re relieved — they’re used to being let down.”

Caruso, who’s from South Brooklyn, had limited experience with queso — he initially thought it was made along the lines of mixing molten Velveeta and a can of Ro-Tel chiles. But after a research trip during which he ate about 40 quesos in five days, he latched on to the addictive nature of the dip, and so he crafted a version that hits the right notes while being unique to Javelina. The restaurant serves four versions (the basic yellow and white can be modified a number of ways) that are lighter than many pots of cheese he
ate in Texas, but incredibly addictive. (“I eat a small bowl of the white queso every night,” he says. “I’ll be hiding from my cardiologist for the next eight months.”)

Caruso didn’t mess with other dishes. “Everywhere we went, the enchiladas de Tejas had exactly the same flavor — they’re filled with onion and cheese and topped with chili con carne,” he says. “That didn’t seem like something we could change.” And the fajitas, another Tex-Mex staple, are straightforward, although Caruso obsesses over the quality of ingredients, and chops all produce fresh daily so that it retains the characteristic snap.

Post also made sure there was a dish from every corner of Texas on the menu — there are stacked enchiladas from West Texas, for instance, and puffy tacos that pay homage to San Antonio. And Caruso gets to explore his interest in breakfast tacos at brunch, when you’ll also find migas and chilaquiles on the menu.

The pair insist they’re still tweaking and testing on Texans, though Javelina has already won fervent fans. “This food creates so much passion in people who grew up on it,” says Post. “I’m not sure there’s anything else like it.”

And while it’s tempting to peg the Tex-Mex rise to a Texas moment or Mexican moment currently under way in NYC, that doesn’t really give this singular culinary tradition enough credit. “People on TV
always badmouth Tex-Mex as not a real cuisine,” says Caruso. “I felt like we were stepping into the lion’s den, being surrounded by all these Mexican restaurants. But we’ve been so well received that I feel like thumping my chest at chefs who come in here and say, ‘I don’t believe this.’ ‘Well,’ I want to say, ‘you should.’ ”