Don't Mess with Tejas

Steve Gontram's culinary compass points south-of-the-border

Apr 21, 2004 at 4:00 am
A couple of weekends ago, after a wonderful, belly-busting nouveau-Tex-Mex meal at Tejas, I went home and turned on the TV. There was this show on called Century City (which I think is already canceled), about lawyers in Los Angeles circa 2030, dealing with futuristic issues such as who gets custody of the microchip implanted in somebody's brain. Very high-concept in a silly, The Jetsons-meets-Law & Order way, but also easy to follow and smoothly executed. I was stoked to discover that the cast included Hector Elizondo, the unsung hero of character actors, and Viola Davis -- two performers I don't get to see often enough. I watched the entire episode, didn't make fun of it once and had a good time considering I was battling a food coma. But I never bothered to mention the show to anyone (until now), never told any friends to check it out. I was entertained enough by Century City for the hour I watched it, but there was also a certain self-effacing, cookie-cutter element to the show -- it would take me a moment to pick it out of a CSI/Cold Case/The Guardian/Without a Trace lineup.

On my first visit to Tejas -- Harvest chef-owner Steve Gontram's second St. Louis establishment and Clayton's latest insta-hit eatery since its January debut in the former digs of Ramon's Jalapeno -- I'd whiled away a splendid afternoon with my friend Ajay, whom I get to see entirely too seldom. We had a good chuckle over the phrase "Welcome to cowboy heaven," which graces the top of the menu, then lingered over a meat loaf sandwich -- a reckoning hunk of browned meat that did the Lone Star State proud, flavored up real good with Jack cheese and chipotle mayo, served atop Texas toast (of course) -- and some tortilla-encrusted snapper, perfectly grilled and damn tasty. We lingered as well over a wedge of iceberg lettuce topped with peppercorn ranch dressing and crumb-like, fried-onion "croutons," but only because we couldn't decide whether we liked it. I appreciated the nod to the traditional Southern salad, in which the wedge is typically drizzled with buttermilk dressing, but as Ajay pointed out, this wedge was "perfectly fine, and not bad, but, like, absolutely nothing special." Still, we finished it.

We decided to have a round of bloody marys, because we wanted to taste them with the house's signature jalapeño-tomato juice, and because having a late lunch at a nice restaurant in the middle of the week with a good friend makes you feel a bit mischievous. The splash of jalapeño does just what you'd imagine it would to a bloody mary, striking a tongue-tingling high note that run-of-the-mill marys don't reach. Bloody mary aesthetes will certainly want to sample this one. In between catching up on each other's breakups and job hunts, Ajay and I noted the kooky bits of the restaurant's otherwise composed décor, like the tufts of tumbleweed lined atop one rafter, the bar's saddle-shape stools and the planter near the entrance that resembles the bottom half of a cowboy in boots and jeans.

A few nights after that lunch, while waiting for a table to open up, I bumped into my friend Jordan and his family; my neighbor Danette and I wound up tagging along on their reservation and ordering an unrestrained feast. Jordan, his dad and I went through two appetizer platters of oysters on the half-shell, slurping down one shiny, briny morsel after another as if we were beached castaways and they were bottles of Evian -- sometimes having the patience beforehand to smear them with chipotle cocktail sauce and/or ginger pico de gallo, sometimes not, because in all permutations these hit the spot -- while the non-mollusk fans at the table made grossed-out faces. The tortilla chips served in red-speckled metal pails made fine shovels for digging into a black bean and roasted corn salsa (very starchy, for better or worse), house-made guacamole (a great rendition of the smooth sort, mixed not with sour cream but crème fraîche) and "hotter-than-hot Tejas hellfire" habanero-mango salsa (not as ridiculously sweltering as it sounds).

Jordan's dad, big on wine, studied Tejas' list of about 70 bottles, handily divided into categories like "White wines for spicy food" and "Rich reds for pork, duck and light game" and buttressed overwhelmingly by California and Australia varietals. (Real "cowboys" would never sip something as wussy-sounding as, say, Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet.) He selected a smoky, round-flavored Stag's Leap cabernet, which Danette and I drank right alongside our confidently poured, classically prepared Tejas margaritas. We cooed over entrées such as the roasted duck breast glazed in an orange-persimmon sauce, tender and juicy, and especially the slow-braised beef cheeks, meat so supple and yielding, infused with such down-home flavor that a theory was floated that it was actually pot roast. In fact, there was much discussion about the genre of cooking that Gontram, a native Texan, is going for here. The menu is littered with Tex-Mex and Mexican cuisine keywords: chipotle, salsa, guacamole, tamale, pozole, quesadilla, chorizo, poblano, chiles rellenos, empanada, etc., often strung together so densely that it's hard to visualize exactly what you'll be getting when you ask for, say, "hoja santa wrapped gulf snapper on pinto beans refrito, with citrus-chayote jam, and red chimayo chile mojo." Tejas doesn't really serve Tex-Mex or Mexican fare; the food is neither messy nor earthy enough to pass for either. It's contemporary American, dressed up south-of-the-border style. To put it another way: very high-concept, in a silly, Arcelia's-meets-Harvest way, but also easy to eat and smoothly executed.

After dinner I insisted that we order the make-your-own-s'mores dessert set-up, which disappointed me only because the chocolate came as a sauce, depriving me of the fun of melting it myself, and which disappointed Jordan's dad only because the graham crackers looked and tasted store-bought. Danette exhibited her time-tested marshmallow-searing techniques, and as we all admired her prowess and attempted to duplicate it with our own skewers, it seemed like the right time to start whistling "Happy Trails." It was the sort of great time you have with a friend's parents where by the end you want to ask them to adopt you.

Instead, I went home and turned on the TV. And I never bothered to mention the restaurant to anyone (until now), never told any friends to check it out. I was entertained enough by Tejas for the hours I ate there, but there was also a certain self-effacing, cookie-cutter element to the restaurant -- it would take me a moment to pick it out of a BARcelona/Café Napoli/Figaro/Miso on Meramec lineup.

I never caught another episode of Century City, but I did go back to Tejas once more, settling in at the bar by myself one afternoon, looking for evidence that Tejas is more than just another widget in the image-is-everything culinary machine of Clayton, where every restaurant serves up a different menu but the same meal. The bartender, upon taking my order, suggested I pair my burger with the mixed-greens salad, and I took him up on it. He refilled my club soda countless times, often when it was still half-full, and never charged me for it. The burger was plenty good, managing a unique, beef-tartare taste, and the hefty salad came studded with plantain chips for crunch, which I found terrific. The staff was all smiles, buzzing about.

Tejas may not be cowboy heaven, but it's definitely better than Century City. Like its burger, this place is plenty good -- and that's plenty good enough for me.