Brooklyn TexasComment

This summer, something miraculous happened. Uptown, Downtown, Brooklyn: Tex-Mex restaurants, real, bona fide Tex-Mex restaurants with actual queso (so much more than “cheese dip”), crunchy taco shells, and ground beef were opening up in New York faster than you can say “Mutton Bustin’." A few weeks ago, we got to sit down with Matt Post, who opened up Javelina to crowds of ravenous New Yorkers and Texans equally eager to be transported to the Lone Star State via chips, dip, and exquisite puffy tacos. We stuck around afterwards for snacks, and ended up staying for five hours making friends and gorging ourselves (our favorites were the Habanero and White Peach margaritas and the traditional yellow Bob Armstrong). Laughing with strangers with an icy margarita in hand; we might as well have been in Houston. Thanks Matt!

BKTX: In your blog, you write that one of your goals for opening Javelina was to debunk myths about Tex-Mex in New York City. Was there anything in particular that bothered you about the representation of Tex-Mex in New York, or was it just the absence of knowledge about Tex-Mex?

MP: It was a little bit of both. There is an absence of knowledge for your average New Yorker and a misunderstanding about what Tex-Mex cuisine is. For example I’ve lived here for 10 years now and I’ve had this idea almost since the day I moved here. It just seemed insane that there weren’t Tex-Mex restaurants in New York City. When I started talking about this idea with Texans and New Yorkers, it was two totally different conversations. When I talked to Texans about opening a Tex-Mex restaurant in New York City, 99 times out of 100 the next question was, “Oh my God, are you going to have queso?”

BKTX: That was our first question too!

MP: Seriously, I can’t even think of the last person who said, “Oh, that’s interesting!” It’s always about queso. Now with New Yorkers, I would say, “Hey, I’m thinking of opening a Tex-Mex restaurant,” the first thing they would always say was: “Oh, you mean barbecue?” Which as you know has nothing to do with Tex-Mex cuisine. You can have brisket tacos and things like that, but there was a lot of misunderstanding about what Tex-Mex is. Sadly a lot of people’s experiences with Tex-Mex is sadly Taco Bell, which isn’t the best ambassador for Tex-Mex up here.

BKTX: You also reference Homesick Texan and Robb Walsh. How do you think your voice and what your doing fits in with the existing Texans in New York food world?

MP: I think Robb Walsh is a good example. Lisa Fain’s [Homesick Texan] project was more of a cookbook inspired by her longing for Texas and the food she loved growing up. Robb Walsh was one of the first food writers who got into the history of Tex-Mex. I got a few of his books when I started this process, and ended up learning a lot about Tex-Mex. I grew up eating it but didn’t know a lot of the history around it. Over the last few years I’ve gained a greater appreciation of that. What we’re trying to do here is forward the conversation about that and bring it into a city that hasn’t really been focused on Tex-Mex cuisine — it’s been all about mom and pop Italian places and Chinese food restaurants and steakhouses until very very recently. All of my friends who grew up in New York City, and that’s pretty much all the restaurants were. It wasn’t such a diverse place for restaurants until the last 20 years or so.

BKTX: I think of New York as such an international city in terms of food! Why do you think there weren’t Tex-Mex restaurants in New York? It can’t be because there were no Texans here, right?

MP: No! I’ve heard of a few places open in the ’90s. The original owners of El Phoenix had a Johnny Enchiladas up here that closed in the late ’90s, but that was really popular. I think it goes in spurts. I’ve always heard that the New Yorkers’ palate isn’t focused on spices and spicy food, and I think that’s changed a lot now. I think people are willing to embrace different cuisines. Another thing here is that there are a lot of people who went to IC or CIA or other great culinary schools and they want to put their own unique spin on cuisines. They want to do fusion or an Asian French place or whatever. And I think just cooking regular Tex-Mex using American cheese and rice and beans isn’t as sexy as some of these other cuisines. People weren’t really interested in cooking that so it got misrepresented and underpopulated here.

BKTX: Now though, it’s kind of sexy to cook something delicious with Kraft cheese.

MP: Yeah! We’re working on a Frito pie enchilada, it’s great, it’s topped with queso. Again, I think a lot of really great chefs have been taking downscale ingredients and making them upscale and refined. People are more apt to cook with Fritos than they were 8 years ago. But Frito pie is right down the middle as far as Tex-Mex goes.

BKTX: Frito Pie is such a rodeo food. Are you guys venturing into that?

MP: I don’t know! We didn’t open with Frito Pie on the menu, and I was explaining to my chef, “Whether you like it or love it, it’s what every kid grew up eating in Texas. Every Friday, we’d have Frito Pie!” Every kid in Texas had it every single week. When you’re up here and you don’t have a lot of Texas-type foods and you yearn for the things you grew up eating. We thought it would be fun to play around with and run as a special on Sunday nights.

BKTX: There’s also such a range of restaurants in the South. We’re both from Houston, and especially in Houston there’s such a range of Tex-Mex and Mexican food from hole in the wall places with families making their grandmothers’ recipes to nicer places like El Real or Hugo’s. Do you think we’ll see a range like that here, or are we still just getting used to the home style food?

MP: I’ve spent a lot of time in Houston — my mom’s from Houston and went to Lamar high school — but I’m from Dallas originally. Dallas is a little different food culture. Dallas is almost in Oklahoma for goodness sakes. It’s just far away from Austin and Houston and San Antonio, so it’s a very different food culture. In Houston, you have Underbelly, they do a really interesting job tying cuisines together. And there’s a huge fishing culture! People think “Oh, New York is oysters,” and when I say seafood is big in Texas too they think I’m crazy! We produce more oysters than New York City! I think Something like 40% of the country’s production comes from Texas. Especially Blue Points. All the commercial oysters are fished out of Texas. There’s this big fishing culture, and the Vietnamese that came over — especially in Houston — and there are all these interesting things going on. Dallas has always been kind of a big hair, wannabe-LA kind of flashy type place, so a lot of the food culture there has shifted towards being more upscale than a lot of other parts of Texas. What you’re seeing now especially in Dallas is Tex-Mex 2.0. Like haute-cuisine Tex-Mex. And I’ve been to some of the places and they’re interesting — it’s not what I grew up eating, but I can appreciate what they’re trying to do. When we started thinking about this restaurant I thought the most important thing for right now is to be as authentic as possible. Let’s do a bunch of greatest hits so that when people from Texas come in, they’re like “Oh my god, cheese and onion enchiladas, or queso, or tamales, or puffy tacos from San Antonio.” And then in 10 years from now or something, when people have an understanding of what Tex-Mex is, then you can start playing around with it. I don’t know if we’re at the point where we can start doing something like that in New York right now. You’re already seeing it in some of the restaurants. There are a couple of nice restaurants here and you’re starting to see queso on the menu, served with flour tortillas, and those are things that were unheard of in Mexican cooking. The flour tortilla has no basis whatsoever in Mexico. So I think people are starting to think about how to incorporate Tex-Mex into their cuisine, so it’s kind of fun to see that.

BKTX: Can you tell us about Bob Armstrong dip? We didn’t find out about it until we moved to New York from our friend from Dallas!

MP: It’s funny! That’s one of the things that is interesting about Tex-Mex: Everybody from every single city has a specific thing that they love. In Dallas, we don’t have as big of a tradition. Maybe brisket tacos—that came out of Dallas. A place called Migas was probably the first to do that. Houston has Ninfa’s, with the fajita.

BKTX (E): That’s my favorite! 

MP: Yeah! San Antonio has the puffy taco, and Austin has Bob Armstrong. It was originally created there. And breakfast tacos.

BKTX (O): How did we miss out on this!?

MP: Yeah, so Matt’s El Rancho they’ve been around forever, an iconic Tex-Mex restaurant in the state. Matt Senior was the owner of Matt’s El Rancho, that one started in the ‘50s I think. In the ‘60s, Bob Armstrong was a very influential Texas politician — i think at the time he was probably a congressman — you know he worked in Bill Clinton’s cabinet later, and was the head of Agriculture — he did a lot of interesting things. He came into the restaurant for lunch one day and from what I understand he was a very boisterous presence. He came in and Matt Jr., the owner’s son, was working there. He was 15 or maybe 16 at the time. Bob sees him and said, “Matt! Make me something I’ve never had before!” I’m sure this kid’s panicking because he’s not really a cook, he’s just kind of there managing the store. So he runs in the back and grabs some queso and guacamole and sour cream and ground beef and brings it out. Bob takes it and eats it and says, “You know, this is amazing!” And goes around telling everyone, “You gotta go to Matt’s and get the Bob Armstrong dip, trust me they’ll know what it is.” I’m sure at first no one knew what he was talking about but eventually it became this really big thing and they put it on the menu. It’s been a huge seller for them ever since. How I found out about it was Matt Jr. grew up and moved to Dallas and started a Matt’s El Rancho there right next to my high school in Lakewood. We started going there in junior high or so and it was on the menu there. It’s one of those things that you taste and just go “OBVIOUSLY!” When I came up here I knew we wanted to do a version of that. Initially we thought we might call it something different or whatever, but Bob passed away about 3 days after we opened, so I thought we should keep his name on it as a legacy. He did all these great things for Texas — he bought up all the land for Big Bend National Park — so I think it was the right homage to him and we’re happy to have it.

BKTX: Before you opened what was your go-to secret spot to get your Tex-Mex fix?

MP: Interestingly, the place I probably liked most was this place called Los Dos Molinos, which wasn’t Tex-Mex. It was Arizona-Mex which is still a close cousin of Tex-Mex but way spicier, with all the hatch chiles. It was unbearable sometimes. They had chimichangas on the menu which is on the cusp. I used to come probably at least once a month and bring all my friends. We’d have birthday parties and going away parties there. And after 13 years, they moved back to Arizona where they had a few other restaurants, and then long story short, when I started looking for space, I found this location, but this used to be their location. In between there was a lasagna place. I came here in ‘05 and they left around 2010, and I used to come here all the time. When I saw the opportunity to bring Tex-Mex back to the neighborhood, and into the space that was really my local restaurant it was really kind of cool. I loved that place. Another place, it’s not even Tex-Mex, is a little hole in the wall, is Lupe’s. I think they call themselves Cal-Mex, but they do a really great spinach enchilada and jalapeno margaritas. That’s a great place. Lobo’s is not bad in Brooklyn. They’re from Arlington, they have a couple locations in Brooklyn. I go to Mexican places too and gorge on guacamole and margaritas. Agave has a pretty good chicken mole enchilada, which isn’t Tex-Mex but you’ll take what you can get sometimes.

BKTX: Your chef Richard Caruso is a long time veteran of Tex-Mex. How did you meet him?

MP: No! He has a Mexican background! My background was in recruiting. And so I thought surely I can find a chef on my own. A lot of restaurants use Craigslist as a resource for hiring so I put an ad out and met with 15-20 chefs that were interesting and a couple I really liked, I thought they were very serviceable and high quality chefs but didn’t really feel like they understood the cuisine, which I thought was really important. And so I ended up talking to a recruiter who focuses on chef hires. So I told them what I wanted, and he was like I have the perfect candidate for you. And I was like, really? Don’t belittle my intelligence. And he was like no seriously! and we went over his background, and he had been cooking for a while, and was second to sous at the biggest Rosa [Mexicano] at the time anywhere and went over to Hill Country. and then he helped start up and consult on a bunch a different Mexican restaurants in the city. So I thought ok this sounds pretty good, he understands Mexican cuisine and cooking with peppers and cilantro and making guacamole and all of that stuff, and the Hill Country experience was completely different but he understands how passionate Texans are about their cuisine. What better place was there for him to work in than Hill Country when that opened up here in the city. Actually we had a similar background — when he was older, he transitioned out of working in construction and wanted to be a chef. He went to culinary school and working as a line cook, so that resonated with me as well, given that this is my intro into the restaurant industry. I thought it would be a great fit, so I took him down to Texas --  Houston, and Dallas and went to 25 restaurants. It’s death by queso. Because up here, I’m like, “We need queso,” and he said, “What, like queso fundido?” and I was like, “No, nonono. We need to go taste it, taste all the cumin and the cheese. It’s so different than at Rosa.” So we went to Ninfa's, El Tiempo, everywhere in Houston. La Mexicana. That helped him get a better sense of the palate of the Texan and what Tex-Mex cooking is. We used that as a base and went from there.

BKTX: How did you find Javier [the stuffed Javelina on the wall in the restaurant] and how did he get here?

MP: Poor Javier! I knew I wanted a mascot, especially since no one up here is going to know what a Javelina is. Even in Texas, there’s none in Dallas, but I spent a lot of time in the Hill Country growing up and they are very prevalent there. So, I thought we needed a mascot or people wouldn’t understand what a javelina is: there, that is a javelina. Usually they don’t wear sunglasses, but that’s a javelina. Like everything in the world these days, I met Javier over the internet. I looked on Ebay and Craigslist and all over the place. One of my cousins is a big hunter, but they didn’t have a full body one they just had the head. I wanted the full body experience. That sounds creepy. So I found this site — my interior designer helped me — and we had him shipped up and he got here and sadly one of his ears fell off during transit. We had to glue it back on but no one’s the wiser, but I guess the secret’s out now! He needed a name and we figured Javier was fairly appropriate. People love him!

BKTX: Do you consider yourself a homesick Texan?

MP: Yeah. Being a Texan is one of those things — you’re always a Texan. I still have a Texas driver’s license and I haven’t lived in Texas really since I left for college. Like I went back in summers and stuff and the holidays but I haven’t really lived in Texas in over 20 years! It’s something that I have very fond memories of, and I’m fortunate that I still have family and friends back there. I do have the ability to get back home pretty regularly. I think New York is such a great place for Texans. It’s not a surprise that Texans move up here. You have a group that’s very extroverted and loud and opinionated and brash, and so are New Yorkers, right? I think Texans, maybe more than people from other states, get up here and are like, “Yeah, these people aren’t so different from us after all.” They might talk different and not say y’all or yonder, or other things like that. I think New Yorkers get along with Texans too. They think, “Oh, they are fun people to be around.” You see Texans in every nook and cranny of any industry in New York in a very significant way, which I think is really cool too. I would feel more homesick if I wasn’t here, than I would if I was in Minnesota or something. I was in Chicago for a long time and there weren’t nearly as many Texans in Chicago. I feel like now I’m with Texans every day. Before, every time I would go out I would invariably always run into a Texan. Almost every night I went out. Even now, it’s just more and more Texans moving up here, and New Yorkers moving to Austin, coming back after a couple years. I feel as part of the community up here as ever.

BKTX: Is that one of the things that made you feel confident about opening a Tex-Mex restaurant here?

MP: Yeah. I had this idea in 2008 but got cold feet because of the economy. But every time I would go out and talk to a Texan, and invariably we would start talking about Mexican food. That’s just what you do, after you finish talking about the Cowboys or whatever! And they would all just shake their head and sigh and say the same thing: it’s terrible up here. I can’t believe you can’t find good Tex-Mex. So, I might be stupid but I’m not an idiot. After a hundred of those conversations I was like OK, hold on a second, there’s a big demand here for this type of cuisine. So as I thought about how to market the place, I thought if I can get word out to all the Texans, every Texan is going to come here once to try it. If they like it, they are going to tell all their friends and bring all their New York friends here. If they all hate it, then we’ll be closed in 3 months. So I had a pretty good feeling that there were enough Texans here — we did a lot of research on that — to at least have a group of not only regulars but also very vocal and supportive about the business here as well, and we’ve found that to be the case.

BKTX: Did you find any significant Texans-in-New York data?

MP: I used to use LinkedIn all the time for when I was doing recruiting, so I’m used to playing around with that. I did a few searches and my guesstimate is that — I think it’s a little bit low — probably about 30,000 Texans up here. It’s probably not too much lower than that, maybe between 30 and 40,000. The Texas Exes group for UT Alumni, they’ve got 11,000 on their ledgers across the tri-state area, and they have a very active group. Probably one of the biggest active alumni groups — I know it’s their biggest active alumni group outside of Texas. I think San Francisco and them are very close. But they are probably one of the biggest and most active alumni groups of any university in New York City full stop. So, A&M has a group up here, Baylor’s got a group up here, TCU, Tech. Some of them are bigger than others, but Texans like getting together and celebrating all things Texan! That’s how it is! Not to pick on Iowa, I have great friends from Iowa, but if you were to start an Iowan restaurant here, I wouldn’t know what to serve necessarily, BUT I don’t know if there’s such a huge state pride that comes with growing up in Iowa.

BKTX: Texans are extra proud.

MP: Annoyingly proud. I get into so many arguments with my New York friends about Texas, just the dumbest arguments. Of course you always end up, “Well if it’s so good, how come you live here?” and I’m like, “Listen, someone’s got to show you guys how to do stuff up here!” I think it’s just a very great — you couldn’t ask for a better community for opening up a restaurant. We feel very fortunate.