My friend, food-writing colleague and restaurateur, Robb Walsh, has spilled a fair amount of ink encouraging eaters inside Texas, and out, to embrace the Velveeta-intensive regional cuisine known as Tex-Mex. It’s a campaign I have wholeheartedly endorsed, both in print and in person. So when I met with Rico Valencia, co-owner of the Houston-based Cyclone Anaya’s Mexican Kitchen, about his plans to open a restaurant in Northern Virginia’s Mosaic District, I asked about his embrace of the Tex-Mex term.
What kind of Tex-Mex does Cyclone Anaya’s serve? The Velveeta kind or the fancy-pants kind?
“I’m glad you brought that up,” says Valencia, warming up to the subject.
“Ours is more. . . how do you explain it?” Valencia continues. “It’s not modern Tex-Mex. I’d just say it’s more ‘fine Tex-Mex.’ ”
A moment later, the owner explains how the Tex-Mex chain, founded in 1966 by his Mexican father (and named after dad’s professional wrestling nom de plume), has always taken liberties with the cuisine — from the moment his Yugoslavian mother grated Parmesan over cheese enchiladas.
“We’re definitely evolved,” says Valencia who started to push for broad changes with Cyclone Anaya’s in the early 2000s. “What I did when I wanted to kind of re-concept it and redo everything, for lack of a better term, I said, ‘Man, there’s a missing component here in Houston for like a P.F. Chang’s of Mexican.’ That’s really what I went after. So all of my build-outs kind of evolved into it. . . . But it’s higher-quality.”
“It’s not P.F. Chang’s,” interjects Jessica Bruner, vice president of leasing for Edens, which attracted Cyclone Anaya’s to Fairfax.
“It’s not P.F. Chang’s,” Valencia picks up the thread. “I’m just trying to give you the mind-set. You walk into our restaurants and nothing says ‘Mexican’. . . . The music is classic rock.”
Yes, the forthcoming Cyclone Anaya’s in the Mosaic District will have little in common with the influx of taquerias in the Washington area The 200-plus seat restaurant will, like its operations in Houston and Dallas, channel the casual refinement of a national dining chain, the nightlife booziness of a clubby watering hole and the high-chair homeyness of a family eatery. It’s refined suburban Tex-Mex for people who find Uncle Julio’s too kiddie-intensive.
“We’re going to do a margarita cart here,” Valencia mentions, noting that it might include the use of liquid nitrogen. “We’re going to make tableside margaritas.”
Likewise, Cyclone Anaya’s menu will split the difference between down-and-dirty Tex-Mex and the chef-driven Mexican-inspired cuisine of, say, Bandolero. It’ll run the gamut from chile con queso and cheese enchiladas to spicy grilled salmon and lobster enchiladas with a white-wine cream sauce. And what about those sizzling cast-iron platters of fajitas, a trademark of virtually every Tex-Mex restaurant since the invention of the cuisine?
“We don’t do any sizzling fajitas or anything like that, because I don’t like the odors. I don’t like how it smells and gets on you,” says Valencia, whose fajitas will arrive without the hot, grease-spitting cast-iron plate.
Chimes in Jason Gould, the Australian-born research and development chef for Cyclone Anaya’s: “You go in for lunch and you walk [back] to the office and you’re stinking like charred meat.”
Gould’s role, among other things, has been to bring consistency across the restaurants in the chain. He’s also putting a little more Tex (read: American dishes) into the Tex-Mex menu.
“So if you’re in an office building and somebody says, ‘Hey, I want Tex-Mex,’ and somebody says, ‘Hey, I want a burger,’ it’s like we got both,” Gould says. “Now the [burger] flavors are of Tex-Mex.”
If this sounds like a Tex-Mex chain with ambitions, that’s because it is. Valencia says that he hopes to open five Cyclone Anaya’s in the general area, including one he already has planned for Charlottesville in the near future. The Cyclone team also has been scouting locations for Boston and Chicago.
In the meantime, however, the team hopes to open in the Mosaic District in January or February.