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Ellerbe and Salsa Fuego: Are the raves justified?

Posted 12:27pm on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011

Accolades and rankings are nice, but what do they really mean to the average Joe Diner? Last August, Bon Appétit magazine named Ellerbe Fine Foods one of the 10 best new restaurants in the country -- a huge accolade for the modestly sized gourmet eatery. A few months later, just about everyone was shocked when Texas Monthly picked tiny Salsa Fuego in west Forth Worth as one of the state's five best Mexican restaurants.

Suddenly, these already-crowded restaurants became even harder to get into. Still, we couldn't help but wonder: Are they really worth the drive (to Salsa Fuego) or the price tag (at Ellerbe)? We decided to put them to the "hype" test.

Ellerbe Fine Foods

1501 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth, 76104, 817-926-3663, ellerbefinefoods.com

The back story: When your restaurant is named by Bon Appétit magazine as one of the nation's 10 best new ones, you're golden ... right?

In theory, and last year was a stellar one for this locavore-leaning, elegant, former gas-station-cum-Southern-foods-serving establishment. Owners Richard King and chef Molly McCook, childhood friends and now business partners, clearly have a foodie following. The tone they strive for is upscale comfort, a dining room with white tablecloths, but butcher paper on top. And they actually stash highchairs here for the lucky kiddos who might get to try the barbecue New Orleans-style shrimp, or Maw Maw's bread pudding. Lucky kids, true that.

Most-raved-about dish(es): Bon Appétit specifically noted the above-mentioned dishes. Other publications have pointed to the maque choux (kind of like a braised vegetable hash), the tomato and cheese salad and the lamb involtini.

Our take: Happily, we secured a table (with a reservation, natch) on a recent Friday night. The dining room is bustling and buzzing, a nice departure from other high-end restaurants in the area, most of which can be a bit stuffy. Ellerbe has the charm thing down, but we soon realized it needs to work a bit on its service. We had to ask for bread, and we ordered a bottle of wine, but our waiter seemed reticent to refresh our glasses. At other times, we had to nearly stand up to get his attention.

But the food is not to be missed.

The barbecued shrimp starter, while meek in presentation (three small shrimp adrift in sauce, with a small dollop of spoon bread), was delicious. If you're hungry, don't share this with your partner. If you do, make sure you have bread, so you can mop up the spicy-sweet sauce. Plates bare, our entrees were soon delivered. The lamb involtini (lamb wrapped around latte da feta cheese and grape leaves) was served with a farro risotto with cranberries and arugula. The flavors and textures all hit high notes. So did those in my companion's redfish, which was stuffed with crab meat and pan roasted with potatoes.

For dessert, we could not resist the bread pudding, which for our money, takes the award away from Sapristi!, the previous local champion. It nails all the components down, from large chunks of bread to the gooeyness factor.

Dinner bill: $140, with tip, including a $32 bottle of wine.

Salsa Fuego

3520 Alta Mere Drive, Fort Worth, 76116, 817-560-7888, salsafuegofw.net

The back story: Since this west-side spot opened last year, word has spread, and spread fast, about Carlos Rodriguez's restaurant. Scour blogs and restaurant boards, and you'll find raves about the vast New Mexican-tinged menu at this tiny (we counted 11 tables inside) venue, which was once a KFC. Texas Monthly tipped off the mainstream late last year when it named Salsa Fuego as one of its five-best Tex-Mex restaurants ... in the state. Soon after its anointment, understandably, tables were hard to come by. We waited a few months until the furor died down to see if the carne asada enchiladas were all that.

Most-raved-about dish(es): Texas Monthly loves the enchiladas, pork tamales, "chunky" carnitas tacos, chicken poblano relleno and churros.

Our take: When we settle into a booth one blustery afternoon, it's 2:30 and the place is two-thirds full. Our waiter is well-meaning but either new, a bit high-strung, or both. He greets us belatedly, takes drink orders and doesn't return for another five minutes. When he does come back, we order a small guacamole, enchiladas with jalapeño cream sauce, chicken relleno and churros.

When the guacamole comes, it's two small rounds, each piled into a scooped-out avocado shell. (Our waiter gives us the large, but charges us for a small, to make up for the initial delay.) Lemony and slightly chunky with bits of tomato and garlic, it is tasty but not standout in execution. Come to think of it, we've had fresher, better-tasting guac at El Asadero, Paco and John, and Chipotle.

Soon enough, the entrees are delivered. My companion says the jalapeño cream sauce overpowers his carne asada enchiladas. I agree. The top-grade meat and corn tortillas are rendered moot. He has made an unfortunate menu choice; the red or green chile sauces probably would have been better. I am more successful with the relleno. Chargrilled, the large poblano pepper is overstuffed with grilled vegetables (tomatoes, zucchini, onions), and topped with feta and ranchero sauce. The sauce is smoky and complements the vegetables. The dish is a total winner.

For a small restaurant, dining here takes awhile. So we take our churros to go and eat them that night with our 3-year-old son, a churro aficionado, thanks to his many visits to Costco. When he tries one, warmed over in the toaster oven, he says: "I like Costco's better."

Everyone's a critic, it turns out.

Lunch bill: $40, with tip

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