San Angelo, seasoned with a pinch of California, is being served up in Fort Worth. After a dinner at The Tavern, just opened in the space recently vacated by Snookie's on Hulen Street, we think this West Texas transplant's a keeper.
Felipe Armenta Jr., whose family owns Mexican and chic American cafes and taverns in San Angelo, combines his restaurant heritage with experience as a chef in Southern California to bring a new offering to the Fort Worth palate. Armenta's success out west has been well-documented, as has that of his wife, chef Virginia Dalbeck-Armenta, a finalist on the 2005 season of Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen.
Although we found The Tavern menu intriguing, it has some goofy moments, as did the server taking care of our table. But in the end, we were so pleased with our food that we chose to overlook such small flaws.
Armenta puts clever tricks on items, such as the inclusion of poblano chile and bacon in the otherwise downhome deviled eggs, one of the appetizers at The Tavern. Chiles show up elsewhere, too, as in the steak tacos, which are grilled over mesquite, get a topping of charred pasilla sauce.
Tomatillos flavor the pork tacos, which featured lush shreds of roasted pig with chopped cilantro and grated cheese atop small, tender corn tortillas that you would find at a taqueria. A roasted poblano chile and a mild chipotle sauce were among a pile of ingredients on our New Mexico burger, a two-fisted monster that also bore a mound of grated yellow and white cheeses, smoked onion and pickles. A hefty bun stood up to the mess, made even more delicious with a fried egg on top.
The steak and enchilada plate came with a deeply marinated sirloin steak, cooked to our specs, with black beans and a chicken enchilada slathered in a smooth, mild red chile sauce. Everything on the plate worked well together, but the enchilada had been warmed perhaps too long, turning the tortillas a bit tough.
Just to get something green on the table, we ordered the daily vegetable: A generous plate of lightly sauteed spinach arrived as a pretty pile of healthy goodness, scattered with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Not just a little surprising, this showed us that the kitchen cares about smaller details.
Key lime pie, a specialty at one of the Armenta's San Angelo restaurants, was a shocker: freshly made and tart as two cups of lime juice, the interior was cloud-light, while the crumbling crust beneath and zested lime on top of freshly whipped cream gave perfect balance.
Our only quibbles were odd descriptions on the menu, such as "amazing sauces" on the plate of Grandma's Fried Chicken and a BLT salad that may or may not include bacon - the menu doesn't list that among several ingredients. Our cute server seemed eager to please but didn't have as many answers as we had questions, and her habit of addressing our table as "you ladies" annoyed the teenage boy in our group.
But we're happy to have another independently owned, chef-driven restaurant in the neighborhood. Armenta's prices are easy to swallow, too: appetizers are $4-$9, sandwiches and burgers are $8-$9, and entrees are $8-$20, so we think success could be headed his way.
Open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch.