I hate admitting that I'm wrong.
Up to this point in my somewhat spotty career, I would have insisted that certain rules govern a restaurant's survival. A space that can only be located by satellite photography is never going to make it. A fusion menu that fuses the cuisines of two cultures that couldn't communicate if their representatives found themselves standing side by side in a men's room spells disaster in any language. So does any menu item with quotes around it.
And Tex-Mex at some franchised chain operation in the middle of ticky-tacky corporate suburban hell will always be a losing proposition for both owners and eaters.
These rules have served me well through seventeen highly unusual years in the restaurant industry. But after eating at Tin Star -- a five-month-old franchise operation with deep Tex-Mex roots, owned by a rookie restaurant guy who's working off a formulaic menu that's pure sizzle-platter Mexi-American with elements of Japanese and Southeast Asian fusion and occupying a strip mall in the suburban heart of the Denver Tech Center that should go down in the real estate hall of fame as one of the worst locations in the world -- I'm not so sure anymore. Everything about Tin Star violates those laws that were laid down by God and Escoffier to govern this twisted business I love so dearly, and yet the place is so good that I'm willing to admit I was wrong. Because in the midst of all its rule-breaking, convention-flouting, essential chain-restaurant wrongness, Tin Star does one thing right that makes all the difference.
When the delivery trucks pull up outside Tin Star, they're not delivering canned salsa, bags of dusty tortilla chips and mountains of pre-made tortillas from Tin Star corporate headquarters in Dallas. They're bringing tomatoes, poblanos and masa -- big flats of the stuff that are met at the door by a bunch of high-volume trained guys with strong arms and very sharp knives.
Every day, every night, everything here is made from scratch and to order whenever possible -- which is more than I can say for a lot of non-chain restaurants out there. And the kitchen is well-staffed to make sure there's never a shortage of anything. The kitchen is also open, the cooks working in full view of the dining room, with just a narrow service trench separating them from the first row of counter seating. That's a vote of confidence from an owner who knows that his guys can work fast, work clean and not throw fish at each other when the pressure gets bad.
Although Tin Star corporate bills its restaurants as "quick-casual," the label isn't entirely appropriate. In the restaurant industry, fast-casual basically means fast food with nice architecture. It means a burrito or a slab of pre-roasted, nitrate-heavy chicken, or a salad that can be assembled with its dressing and sides and whatever else like culinary steam-table Legos by counter help that doesn't have to know anything more than how to work quickly with a ladle or a portion spoon, then served up in a family-friendly space. Tin Star, on the other hand, is an actual restaurant that just happens to move very, very fast. Order at the counter, pay your tab, get a big metal star with a number on it that you plant on the table in the comfortably generic dining room. A few minutes later, a waitress arrives bearing real food on real plates that you eat with real silverware -- no sporks, nothing plastic. Simple as that.
Except that there's nothing simple about the process; it just looks that way from the front of the house, because that's the illusion franchise owner John Jourde wants to maintain. In the back, though, the cooks are making their own salad dressings, pressing the masa, frying tortilla chips, hand-cutting and blending the salsas for the free chips-and-salsa bar. They're flat-frying potatoes in demi-glace, chopping fresh-fruit pico, roasting poblanos and making their own chimichurri. While I'm not crazy about every little thing these guys do (the corn salsa, for example, is a little bland, and the rice is done in a dry Southern style, dirty with spices but nearly flavorless), I am crazy about the fact that they do it at all. Tin Star very easily could have been just another knock-off, cheap-jack, white-guy-in-a-sombrero nightmare of soggy chips and big-ass burritos, but that's not the way it went.
Jourde and his cooks made sure of that.
When Jourde decided to leave the software world for restaurants, he signed on to open the first Tin Star in Colorado, aligning with a company founded by Rich Hicks, a veteran of Brinker International and a serious pro. But Jourde made a rookie mistake at the start, saddling his venture with a tough location. Tin Star sits in the middle of a strip mall inexplicably constructed with its back alongside DTC Boulevard and its front facing the back yards of a housing development. From the street, the only clue that the restaurant exists at all is a small sign hung on a blank brick wall obscured by trees. And even once you find your way to the proper address, the entrance looks as banal and unexciting as any entrance could possibly look. Each tenant in this strip mall has an identical door, identical surface details, identical chairs lined up before identical tables set outside in identical patio spaces. Tin Star is surrounded by a Washington Mutual, a Smoothie King and a Peaberry Coffee, and if someone were to come along in the night and remove all the signs, it would be impossible to tell one business from another.
Inside, the dining room is so cookie-cutter that I was still shaking chocolate chips out of my hair an hour after I left: dark woods, bland decor, strategically placed walls and seating areas that funnel customers effortlessly through the progression of order and eat. Were Tin Star to shut down tomorrow, any one of a thousand taco joints, delis, coffee shops and burger stands could move in and be up and running inside of a week. It would take maybe fifteen minutes to turn it into a Starbucks, ten into a Chipotle.
But Tin Star isn't going to shut down tomorrow, because if you look close -- if you spend any amount of time just observing the flow of business -- you see the little things that set it apart. For starters, Jourde is actually there. He's not lying on a beach somewhere, getting cell-phone updates from his accountant on his growing investment. He's on the floor and in the kitchen for lunches and dinners five, sometimes six days a week. He's there making sure the front of the house is spotless, busing tables himself when necessary, checking to see that the silverware is dry before it's brought to the table, that the plates are wiped down, that everything's perfect.
Beyond the location, though, Jourde started out with another imperfect situation: the menu, which includes the chain's signature cheeseburger taco as well as such fusion items as a Thai chicken salad with rice sticks, mandarin-orange sections and chile-lime dressing; sweet-and-sour salmon; and tempura-shrimp tacos. Even though ordering a tempura-shrimp taco in a Tex-Mex restaurant in a dead-end strip mall owned by an industry virgin would seem to rank right up there among the worst ideas imaginable, I did -- and discovered that Jourde and his galley managed to pull even this off. Tin Star's tempura taco was excellent, with a single slice of bacon laid along the spine, lots of chopped shrimp, and everything dressed with an apple-melon-pineapple pico de gallo and a Caribbean sauce that barely reinforced the sweetness of all the other ingredients.
The cheeseburger taco is just plain goofy -- in essence a regular cheeseburger, split in half and folded up in a tortilla with lettuce, tomatoes, mayo, mustard, relish and sliced red onion. I prefer that my cheeseburgers be made the way God intended -- on a bun and served in one piece. Fortunately, Tin Star's board features more than a dozen other non-cheeseburger tacos, everything from chicken and asparagus with balsamic vin to roasted pork with jalapeño relish. There are also fajitas (regular and a "cheesesteak" variety, which has about as much in common with a cheesesteak as I do with a water buffalo), a wonderful spicy tortilla soup (handmade every day) and house favorites like sautéed chicken breast with chopped bacon, spiced lemon butter and a blazing-hot smoky chipotle sauce the color of old bricks, served over a bed of spinach with buttered, salsa-jacked Italian orzo pasta on the side.
On my first visit, I went through most of that plus two good quesadillas: one steak with mashed black beans and more chipotle sauce, one chicken with grilled onions, potatoes and a side of barbecue sauce that I immediately threw away because who in the hell wants barbecue sauce on a quesadilla? Barbecue sauce is for the full rack of baby-back ribs that I tried the next time through. Smeared with a commendable honey-chipotle sauce that showed remarkable restraint, these were not the best ribs I've ever had, but they were without a doubt the best I've ever had in a suburban taco restaurant.
On a recent Sunday, I dropped by again for breakfast and walked in on a scene that's the bad dream of owners everywhere: a busy house with no employees. The place was just starting to slam -- half committed on the floor, with a line starting to build at the counter --and Vince Baraket (Jourde's house manager, and himself a twenty-year veteran of Brinker International) was the only guy in the front of the house. Whatever had led to this -- a perfect storm of no-shows and sick calls, maybe -- was immaterial, because Tin Star was open, and rather than curling into a ball behind the counter, rocking and crying for his mommy, Baraket was doing it all: taking orders, calling orders, working expo, answering the phone and serving tables. With customers everywhere, Baraket worked the floor, counter and pass rail with a smile.
Granted, it was a rather grim one, but the smile was there.
My order didn't sit on the rail for more than thirty seconds before it got to me. I had pancakes -- hot, fluffy and oddly sweet, with apple-smoked bacon on the side -- and three kinds of breakfast tacos. The bacon, avocado and egg was as fresh as anything; I'd watched as the avo was cut by the cook and then slid off his knife right into the tortilla. The chopped bacon, potatoes, egg and onion had been sautéed to order. And the miga was a rare treat outside of real, native Mexican joints -- a hot slurry of eggs scrambled loose, salsa, tortilla strips and cheese.
By the time I was done, the floor was at three-quarters and the line continuing to grow. Still, Baraket found the time to make sure everything was to my liking, to set me up with to-go wraps and salsas and sides, and to wish me a good afternoon before he plunged back into the crashing wave of orders backing up the kitchen.
I hate admitting I'm wrong. After spending the better part of my life in this business, my biases in favor of this and against that are hard-earned. By all rights, Tin Star ought to be a failure -- but it isn't. By my rules, it shouldn't have lasted a month -- but it did. Bad ideas, awful locations, marching orders coming from Texas -- all of this can be cured by a kitchen that recognizes that only one restaurant rule is incontrovertible: It's the food that matters most.
Jourde and Baraket and their crew recognize this. So do Tin Star's faithful customers. And so do I.
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