By Ron Bechtol
A short stroll downstream from Ácenar, the stylish new restaurant recently opened by Biga's Bruce Auden and Lisa Wong of Rosario and China Latina, is a towering twin cypress. A tile plaque marking the tree cites its legendary significance as "a lookout of a Mexican sniper who picked off the Texans as they came to the river for water." In many ways it's symbolic of the sniping that might easily attend any enterprise labeled "Modern Tex-Mex"; much of the world has yet to take the traditional version seriously, much less something updated and upscaled. Some of this sniping might be valid, some not. My volley starts with the place itself.
Ácenar is not Mi Tierra with a snazzier paint job. With the exception of some slick color photos of nibbled galletas, paletas, and dulces - and maybe the noise level - there's not much at all in the highly charged interior that suggests Tex-Mex, classic or contemporary. In fact, the clever use of a molcajete grid on the patio takes us back to a much earlier era.
The same might be said for the menu: It's divided into San Antonio Tex-Mex Favorites and Ácenar Specialties, and it's not clear at first glance whether the SA favorites are alleged to be updated, or if all the tweaking took place in the specialties section. An appetizer such as the house-smoked salmon nachos with discrete black beans and dill crema looks much like the classic cosa, but the taste is altogether otra. And it works, despite the rarity of both dill and smoked salmon in any Mexican kitchen, traditional or Tex.
Another appetizer, the familiar sounding chile relleno, is unconventionally stuffed with shrimp, peas, and cashews. It may be the most visually stunning presentation I've seen in years, but sadly, the gasp factor of the slim, intensely green Anaheim chiles played against a brilliantly orange carrot purée can only take the dish so far. Anaheim chiles lack the cojones of the more traditional poblanos; the serrano and ginger components of the purée are soft-pedaled enough to defy detection; and the filling tastes more Asian than Latin.
Much better is the ceviche, a dish more coastal Mexican than Tex-Mex. The tweaking here is mainly in the use of squid and the festive palomitas, or popcorn kernels, capping the copa. Tart and generous, this dish would be great with a michelada, the tarted-up Mexican beer.
Posole is another plate not truly Tex-Mex in pedigree - it's common in New Mexico, however - which may be why Ácenar plays it straight. The chile-laced broth could be more intense, but otherwise, this stew of pork with hominy is essentially authentic.
There is no pretense whatsoever about the authenticity of buttermilk-fried oysters on yucca chips with jalapeño honey mayo: This is an Auden staple swathed in a serape.
Modern or mainstream, there will always be tortillas, and Ácenar's corn tortillas keep the standards high. (The truly Tex-Mex flour models, on the other hand, are merely ordinary.) Refried beans, that other staple of the Tex-Mex table, have been lightened up to the point of neutrality, and the rice has been stripped of color, except for flecks of green.
The most modern aspect of a plate of carne de puerco en chile colorado is that it's not served on a plate, but rather in a large bowl. The pickled onions, borrowed from cochinita pibil, are a nice touch, however, and the pork is fine, but the chile sauce seems to be playing it safe.
An unctuous arroz verde is the accompaniment to a lush-looking pescado veracruzano, and is the perfect foil to mild and meaty mahi-mahi. Resplendent with olives, tomatoes, and capers in the manner of the more traditional huachinango a la veracruzana, the dish is a delight.
I can't say enough good things about the lamb shank braised in chipotle and orange. The lamb is sublime, the sauce superb, the plantain foundation inspired, and the minted cubes of queso fresco an almost giddily appropriate accent. If there's any of your tuna margarita left (we actually preferred it to the sweeter house version), now's the time to suck it down. It won't go with the house-made helados and sorbetes.
The ice creams are all very good, especially the "flan" version, with its aggressive chocolate crunch topping. The "isla flotando," on the other hand, is not only grammatically incorrect, it's also culinarily curious - at least to those with fond memories of the real, poached meringues at Chez Ardid. Guillermo Ardid is actually "helping out" in the kitchen, so a rethink might be in order. Keep the superb mango sauce with its unexpected cilantro accents and set the rest adrift downriver. Past the sniper, for whom it has been an easy target. For despite occasional lapses in its stated theme, Ácenar proves to be a more-than-welcome addition to the local dining scene. So here's my parting shot: Just change the theme and damn the torpedoes. •