Somewhere between the reporting of a new restaurant's opening and a full-contact review lies the land of First Impressions. We'll save the ratings for later, but these are places that generate buzz the minute they flip the sign to read, ‘Yes, we're open.'
In the days before Michael Pollan made corn a dirty word, before it showed up in ice cream and gasoline, there was corn on the cob. Some butter, a little salt. Hard to improve on that — unless you drape it with cotija cheese and a dusting of paprika and chile powder.
Such is Chimayo Market Corn at TNT/Tacos and Tequila, a Mexican grill concept imported from Dallas by Blue Mesa Grill restaurateurs Liz and Jim Baron. TNT shares many of its menu building blocks with Blue Mesa, incorporating coriander-corn crusted chicken, red-chile salmon, tableside guacamole and a dome of corn masa filled with black beans called Adobe Pie.
The Barons resisted just planting the Blue Mesa flag here. For Austin, they stripped the concept to seven proteins and one veggie served as tacos, skewers, wraps and salads. They brought in Austin restaurant designer Michael Hsu to give the sterile space at the Gables Pressler condos some character, including a suspended tequila cage made of rebar.
But TNT made its most ostentatious local statement when it hired Alma Alcocer-Thomas to run the kitchen, trailing street cred from Jeffrey's, Fonda San Miguel and Garrido's.
So how's it working out in the weeks since TNT opened in mid-May? The foodie crowds materialized overnight, and a recent Saturday showed no let-up. The place vibrates with noise and energy, generated by a grill station built into the dining room, by edgy art videos projected on the back wall, by woodblock-style prints in red, black and blue by Chilean-born artist Cristobal Schmal.
As a concept, the food is simple. Small tacos on housemade flour or corn tortillas start at $3, and wraps and salads run $9-$12. But start racking up a table full of orders for plates with three tacos ($11), plus shrimp skewers, queso samplers, flights of tequilas and margaritas in all the shades of sidewalk chalk, and suddenly the combinations look like an equation from ‘Good Will Hunting.' We passed out notes among our party to keep our orders straight.
As the food started flying, some flavors jumped out: Korean-style short ribs with a marinated tang, crunchy chicken with pickled onions, sweet jalapeño relish. Some we lost in a whirlwind of salt and garnishes: red chile salmon with a guajillo mayonnaise, overgrilled vegetables, tortilla soup so briny it puckered our mouths.
There's no arguing the place has personality. A trio of dips, including a smoky roasted red salsa, came to the table gratis with a little paper bag of fried sweet-potato chips. That big ear of spiced corn, with a knife for carving kernels from the cob, and the sweet, creamy Adobe Pie are exotic novelties for a mere two bucks apiece. Tequila can be ordered in shots straight from frozen taps, mixed into a bracing cucumber-jalapeño margarita, even in flights of three tiny shots starting at $9, a decent way to try the blanco, reposado and añejo styles of single brands like Don Julio, Herradura and Cazadores.
There's work to be done here. The rolling guacamole cart feels like a tourist sideshow, complete with juggling, even if the $8.50 end product is good. And forgive our quizzical looks at the idea of Dallas showing Austin how to do the upscale taqueria thing. Garrido's, for example, executes a similar idea with some more impressive flavors.
But TNT does have plenty of something Austin used to have: free parking.
TNT/Tacos and Tequila. 507 Pressler St. 436-8226, www.tntgrill.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays-Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays.