by LESLIE BRENNER
photographs by MANNY RODRIGUEZ
Modern Texas cuisine has, at last, arrived. It has been a long time coming — three decades. Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing, as part of the Southwestern cuisine movement of the 1980s, helped get it started, and both have continued to celebrate the bounty of Texas and its cooking traditions over time. Then Tim Byres and partners opened Smoke in 2009, fire-breathing new energy into the genre. Now, chefs such as Jeff Harris at AF+B in Fort Worth and Michael Sindoni at CBD Provisions in Dallas are, with their inventive plates, bringing the idea to its full expression. What exactly is Modern Texas cuisine? Dining editor LESLIE BRENNER asked each to create a dish that answers the question — and foretells the future.
TIM BYRES + CRAB + VINEGAR + MARIGOLD + CORN
“I find the most enjoyment and meaning when it can all be stripped back raw, cooked in a primal, basic way and served in a larger format — an extravaganza.” Byres steams the live crabs in a covered clay pot with creamer potatoes, okra, fennel, shallots, garlic and small tomatoes in a broth touched with vinegar and scented with fresh Mexican mint marigold leaves. For the corn, he peels back the husk over his fist, removes the silk, rubs the kernels with soft butter, a drizzle of honey, salt and a sprinkle of barbecue spice, then ties the husk back in place and cooks it in hot coals. The dish isn’t on his menu: It is something he’d serve to friends — with pickles, beer, iced tea and chile sauce — or offer at the restaurant for a special party. “To me, this is real Texas food,” he says. “Real, gritty and invitingly modern.” It is very much in the spirit of his James Beard Award–winning cookbook, Smoke: New Firewood Cooking.
MICHAEL SINDONI + SNAPPER + TOMATO + CUCUMBER + CHILE + BOTTARGA
“We’ve covered the whole meat thing enough, so I wanted to do fish.” With Modern Texas cooking, says Sindoni, using local, seasonal products is a given; he is all about featuring “really good ingredients and artisan products,” such as the Sola Stella olive oil from Texas Hill Country Olive Co. that he uses in this dish. Modern Texas cuisine also means preparing things more simply, “not covering it up with a lot of spices and smoke.” The bottarga is dried, cured mullet roe sourced from the Gulf. He plans to feature the dish at CBD Provisions soon.
DEAN FEARING + ANTELOPE + PESTO + PEA + CORN
“It’s our version of summertime Texas.” Fearing uses the antelope sirloin, from Mike Hughes’ ranch in Ingram; the field peas are crowders, purple hulls and black-eyes, from Sides Pea Farm in Canton. And then the onion rings, “Texas 1015 Rio Sweet onions,” developed at Texas A&M University. It’s on the menu now — and in Fearing’s cookbook, The Texas Food Bible.
JEFF HARRIS + SHORT RIB + HOMINY + FAVA + LEEK
“It all starts with the products. We’re seeing a lot more farmers popping up.” Harris sources the beef from 44 Farms in Cameron and the grits and hominy from Homestead Gristmill in Waco. He rubs the short ribs with spices, cold-smokes them, braises then glazes them. The chef plans to feature the dish on his menu as long as he can get the favas, probably through July.
STEPHAN PYLES + HUITLACOCHE + MUSHROOM + CRAB + WATERMELON
“It’s summer, so I thought of watermelon, and what I grew up eating — tamales and watermelon, and how do I put this all together?” For the uninitiated, huitlacoche is the corn fungus that is a delicacy in Mexico. Pyles stuffs fresh nixtamal (ground corn filling) with it, then steams and garnishes the tamal with lightly pickled trumpet mushrooms. To make the “carnitas,” he makes crabcakes, then crumbles and griddles them. “At first I had trepidation about combining mushrooms and watermelon,” says the chef, “but it works beautifully, especially with the olive oil from the mojo.” It’s a dish he can imagine serving at Stampede 66 in the future.