When it first opened, I reviewed The Gateway’s Z Tejas Southwestern Grill in this column. It wasn’t pretty. Phrases like “lousy service” and “lousy management” summed up my Tejas experience. I wasn’t crazy about the food, either. The column heading captured the essence of the matter: “Trouble in Tejas.”
However, I was lured back to Z Tejas this past summer with the promise of fresh green chiles. Each year, Z Tejas restaurants around the country throw a weeklong Chile Festival, featuring a special menu of dishes designed to highlight the bushels of Hatch, N.M., green chiles trucked in for the occasion. An unrepentant chilehead, it was enough to entice me back to Z Tejas.
From around the corner on 400 South, walking toward Z Tejas, I could smell roasting chiles in the air. Like fields of lavender in ProvenÃ§e or fresh baked bread from the hearth, a chile roasting on the fire is one of those scents that can drive you to madness in anticipation. But what really caught my attention on that balmy summer evening is who was roasting those chiles. It was none other than Jack Gilmore, a name synonymous with Z Tejas. Since the first Z Tejas opened in an old Victorian house in Austin, Texas, in 1989, Gilmore has been Z Tejas’ culinary guru and executive chef. There are now 12 Z Tejas locations in seven states, and Gilmore presides over the culinary aspects of all of them, spending most of his time on the road visiting his restaurants and teaching—always teaching. So seeing Gilmore roasting chiles on a huge grill in front of Z Tejas is akin to having Wolfgang Puck personally cook your pizza. I was impressed.
But that night, as I salivated over freshly made dishes like pork chile verde, roasted chicken chile rellenos, and a wonderful apple pie with cheddar cheese and green chiles, I began to rethink my negative notions regarding Z Tejas. Because even more notable than the meal, which was delicious, was the Z Tejas service. It was flawless—a complete about-face from my previous experiences. Perhaps Z Tejas deserved another shot.
I’ve been back to Z Tejas since the Chile Festival and each time I’ve had great meals with impeccable service. Apparently Gilmore’s visit this past summer had an influence, because the Z Tejas kitchen seems now to be firing on all cylinders. And more important, the service at Z Tejas has been kicked up about nine notches on a 10-notch scale. That’s due, I think, to Tamra Young, the new general manager, brought in this summer to stop the leaks at Z Tejas. If my experiences as a Z Tejas customer over the past few months are any indication, Young has done a bang-up job. Z Tejas is leak-free.
My most recent Z Tejas dining experience was enhanced by the excellent service of a guy named Bobby. He was friendly, informative, professional and prompt. His attention to detail was noticeable. If I were opening my own restaurant, I’d hire Bobby in a heartbeat. And there are more like him at Z Tejas. The improvement on the service end at Z Tejas is nothing short of remarkable.
The food seems to have gotten better as well. Maybe the kitchen just wasn’t completely dialed-in during my early visits to the restaurant. It is now. Again, perhaps that’s a direct result of Gilmore’s emphasis on training, teaching, and more training and teaching.
I’ve always liked the catfish beignets at Z Tejas. They are still the perfect meal starter: eight or nine strips of catfish cooked up in a crunchy cornmeal coating and served with a zippy jalapeÃ±o tartar sauce ($7.95). They’re so good even kids love ’em. And Z Tejas’ homemade salsa is terrific, so it’s smart to order a basket of tortillas chips and salsa ($2.95) as soon as you sit down.
The pork chile verde so popular during the Z Tejas Chile Festival was still on the menu during my last visit. If you have the same luck, don’t pass it up. The acidity and tang of roasted green chiles and fresh cilantro provide a beautiful counterbalance to slow-roasted pork, and the combination is delightful. Whereas the chile verde at Z Tejas is classic comfort food Southwestern style, the porcupine shrimp ($16.95) is definitely nouveau, and one of Chef Gilmore’s more brilliant creations. It’s a difficult dish to describe, but I’ll give it a go. The “porcupine” moniker is because the shrimp (a half-dozen or so per order) look like they’ve got porcupine quills. To create this dish, jumbo shrimp are stuffed with crab meat and then rolled in shoestring-style thin tortilla strips of varying colors. The tortilla-crusted shrimp are then flash-fried until the exterior is crunchy and the interior is cooked-through, but still tender and juicy. Then the shrimp are served with a very tasty blackberry-wasabi sauce, wild rice, and a medley of sautÃ©ed vegetables. It’s a dish that tastes as extraordinary as it looks.
Call it the Tejas two-step, or a Tejas turnaround. When it comes to innovative Southwestern fare, Z Tejas has gone in a very short time from worst to first.