For those of us who grew up eating along the Tex-Mex mainstream, it’s been eye-opening in recent years to see the diversity of Mexican cooking from restaurants, or food trucks for that matter, working closer to the source material.
Johnny Sánchez, the collaboration of celebrity chefs John Besh and Aarón Sánchez, moves things in a different direction. The kitchen, overseen by chef de cuisine Miles Landrem, breaks from ardently traditional renderings and instead treats Mexican flavors to the same mix of reverence and reinterpretation we’ve seen applied to Italian, French and even Vietnamese cuisines at other contemporary, chef-led restaurants.
So tuna aguachile ($13) essentially becomes a raw salad with pink slabs of fish dressed like crudo in a riot of glistening colors, transparently thin radish slices, green and red chile rings and delicate microgreens.
For sopes ($15), palm-sized, pie shell shapes of masa dough are fried but also mixed with grated bits of corn for a moist backbeat. Filled with tender braised beef cheek, they come with a grilled, halved bone from which to scoop jellied bits of palate-coating marrow, a decadent maneuver akin to topping cochon de lait with pâté.
And arroz con pollo ($15) produces a chorus of crunch, with each grain of rice fried in rice flour, while grilled chicken, avocado and crumbled cotija cheese plant mellow elements over this tongue-tricking texture.
Found inside the soaring and modern CBD space that was previously Ste. Marie, Johnny Sánchez is casual, colorful, midrange, noisy, built for crowds and ready to party, with a cocktail list that ventures beyond typical tequila drinks (the florecita works like a tropical French 75; the limonada rosa makes bourbon into a sour punch).
The menu makes its mark with dishes you won’t find anywhere else in town, those that tap the inventiveness and resources of a big kitchen with chefs committed to recipe development. Surprisingly, it’s often the Mexican standards we can now find readily elsewhere in New Orleans that disappoint.
The tacos ($8 for two) get a good start on corn tortillas with a toasty flavor and pliant texture. But they tend to overreach and pack too much in. Roasted goat, deeply flavored though it may be, crowds out the pickled cactus and salsa that could have balanced it better, and the big hunks of fried mahi mahi busted through their tortillas at the first bite, sending the overly thick avocado slice shooting out the back like a bar of soap.
Tacos should be easier than this, which is why I prefer the straightforward “street tacos” on the new happy hour menu ($5 for two, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Friday) — like al pastor, slender chunks of pork with the sweetness of pineapple and bite of raw onions, and a vegetarian edition with creamy-textured fingerling potatoes with a slash of crèma.
The enchiladas ($20) are traditional and terrific, filled with tender bits of lamb and sealed over by a darkly aromatic mole, a distillation of many chiles, seeds, nuts and seasonings.
And the skirt steak ($28) is a showstopper, its crusted exterior crowned with a neat cylinder of compound butter turned green with epazote, an herb that gives a little pungent edge to the creaminess melting over the steak. Tuck the meat into tortillas provided on the side with bits of pickled red onions and ribbons of carrots and a drizzle of the house salsa verde and you’ve made the best tacos on offer here.
Platters of silver dollar-sized tostadas ($10-$15) bring one-bite balancing acts of many flavors. A recurring special of carne apache, a marinated beef tartar nestling raw quail egg, shows the wide potential for more tostada toppings, and should this section of the menu expand, I’d be game to try many more. That’s provided, however, that the chapulines don’t get involved.
These minuscule, fleck-sized grasshoppers are a traditional nosh in some parts of Mexico and an optional guacamole garnish at Johnny Sánchez. Salty and lime-streaked but also sometimes soggy and with a pungent marine flavor, like dried snack shrimp, I tried them twice to confirm I’m not a grasshopper guy. Still, they’re only a dollar, so trying them out is a low-risk novelty. The bigger issue is the guacamole ($6) itself, which tasted dull and flabby on its own.
The strengths of Johnny Sánchez come roaring back on the dessert menu, a short showcase of recast Mexican flavors, in this case by pastry chef Kelly Fields. Her chocolate tres leches cake ($9) tastes like chocolate milk momentarily captured as cake and is artfully arrayed across the plate with dollops of mousse, pearl-sized chocolate crisps, dots of toasty meringue and lines of tart gels.
Intricate, beautiful and delicious, it would be at home at Besh’s much higher-end Restaurant August. If that doesn’t sound like what you expect from a Mexican restaurant, dishes like this are how expectations change.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.