Taco the Town

So how is it that Tin Star (see review, page 57), a Tex-Mex chain outfit from Dallas, and John Jourde, a first-time restaurateur more comfortable around software reps than line cooks, came together in Colorado to create a place that so impressed me?

Good question.

Rich Hicks opened the original Tin Star in Dallas in 1999. It was his dream joint, a place that combined everything he loved about eating and restaurants -- and he knew quite a bit about both. Like most good cooks, he got his start young and did all his essential growing up in galleys. His first job was as a dishwasher at the Marsh Creek Inn in Pennsylvania, which he took at the ripe old age of fourteen. Before long, he'd hooked up with Brinker International, the mega-corporation that owns and operates some of the well-known brands on my personal enemies list. Chili's, Macaroni Grill, Maggiano's -- they're all Brinker outfits.

And while I have no qualms admitting that I would dance a naked jig on the roof of the office were I to get the news tomorrow that some strange plague had come along and wiped every Chili's, Applebee's, Red Lobster and Olive Garden off the face of the earth, I also have to admit that I'm impressed with the numbers these operations do, as well as the kind of people they produce.

A chef -- fine-dining, French-trained, experienced and talented -- is a very high-maintenance creature. He may be an excellent businessman, a magnificent cook and a gifted manager, but he is still a highly refined specialist. Chefs (and, in turn, their restaurants, whether they have one or five or even ten) are the Delta Force of the food world. Individual, insular, accustomed to working alone in hostile environments, they represent a discrete application of power, capable of doing wonderful things, but only on a small scale.

Organizations such as Brinker, on the other hand, are like the regular infantry. They produce grunts -- both front-line, mud-foot trigger-pullers and officers made for commanding such because they, too, were once down there in the trenches. You want to take a strip mall, control a block, command a food court? These are the guys you call. No one moves numbers like a successful chain restaurant, and because these companies and divisions are in the business of maximum body count with minimum fuss, everyone involved becomes a ground-level expert.

In other words, an experienced Brinker veteran who's risen through the ranks and made a career for himself in that high-pressure, high-volume world will come out of his tour a preternatural badass, able to do anything, anywhere, and knowing exactly what it will take to be successful. Hicks was one of those guys. And what made him even more dangerous was that he also had a history outside the chains. He recognized what kind of difference a cook-from-scratch kitchen could make, what benefit he would see from buying good product and making sure it was treated well.

Although Hicks pinned his first Tin Star on Dallas, I have no doubt he did so with visions of Tex-Mex world domination, and there are already dozens of Tin Stars scattered across the Midwest and the West. The first one in Colorado belongs to Jourde, who spent several years living close to the original restaurant, eating there three or four times a week.

Jourde had made a lot of money in software, but he wasn't entirely happy. He wanted something of his own, a business he could run himself that would put him in contact with people -- in particular, people who didn't care about software. Because he didn't have a lot of experience in going it alone, Jourde started checking franchise deals, figuring the centralized support that comes with such an arrangement would offer him a crutch to lean on while he learned. "I looked at car washes, dry cleaners," Jourde tells me. "My wife and I sat down and discussed all this, but we weren't even thinking about the restaurant business."

That is, not until he scheduled a lunch meeting with a franchiser (he can't remember what kind) at his neighborhood Tin Star and got to thinking.

"A friend of mine told me I should talk to Rich Hicks and see if there was an opportunity there," he says. His wife thought it was a good idea, he adds, "but I told her, 'I can't even open a lemonade stand. I don't know what the hell I'm doing.'" Jourde had no experience with restaurants beyond eating in them, and the only thing he knew was that most people who go into the restaurant industry go broke. Fast.

Still, he made a couple of calls. He e-mailed Tin Star headquarters to see if they were selling franchises, and they were. He asked about the possibility of opening one in Colorado, his wife's home state. Tin Star gave the okay, but only if Jourde hired the right kind of help. And where did he go? Straight to Brinker, where he found Vince Baraket, a twenty-year veteran who was commanding Chili's outlets as a regional manager -- until Jourde made him his manager.

"Vince is great," Jourde says. "I couldn't do this without him." Jourde staffed his kitchen with the same sort of guys: journeyman cooks from places like Chili's, Il Fornaio, Brook's Steakhouse and other high-volume outlets.

Most important, Jourde turned the only restaurant experience he had -- the experience of being a diner, especially at the first Tin Star -- into an advantage by always remembering what it's like to be a customer on the floor. "I wanted this place to have the same kind of mom-and-pop charm as Rich's," he says, with the same quality of food, the same kind of service, the same everything. "The guest is the boss. That's what I tell everyone. We're building this place one taco at a time."

As for where he chose to build the place, in an awful spot in an invisible strip mall in the middle of the Denver Tech Center, even Jourde thought that was a mistake when his real estate agent first mentioned it. "He said it was an A+ location," Jourde says, laughing, "and I thought he was crazy." But there was already a Jason's Deli there, as well as a few other cash-and-carry joints, and it was in the DTC (even if no one in the DTC could see it), which has always been desperately short on restaurants.

Jourde signed the lease with some trepidation, trusting in his agent's reputation and the smarts of guys who've been in the business longer than he has, hoping they'd chosen this particular spot for reasons that weren't readily obvious. And it looks like other smart restaurant folks have hit on those same reasons, because Fox Restaurant Concepts -- the Arizona-based company behind the Bloom, Wildflower and Bistro Zin chains, as well as North, which opened an insanely popular outpost in Cherry Creek earlier this year -- are looking at coming in with Sauce, a casual pizza-and-wine-bar concept.

If that happens, Jourde is going to look like a genius for getting in early, and Tin Star will have a solid foothold in Colorado, bringing it one step closer to total taco world domination.

Medium and message: If you thought the closing of Adega would shut Denver out of the culinary spotlight, think again. In its "Weekend Living" section, the September issue of Cooking Light features Vesta Dipping Grill and Rioja, as well as Adega, which was still open when the magazine went to press.

That same issue of Cooking Light gives a bump to Mise en Place, the "recreational cooking school" (read: not for pros) in LoDo. But I'm willing to bet that the new Food Network show Sugar Rush, which is currently scheduling time at Mise en Place, will bring that spot a lot more attention. And the CNN shooters have already come and gone from Mizuna, where they were working on a piece about Zagat's top-rated restaurants that will put chef/owner Frank Bonanno's smiling mug before millions of hungry newshounds.

And finally, next week yours truly will join the likes of Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris, Colin Powell, Gloria Steinem and Newt Gingrich, all of whom have contributed to National Public Radio's "This I Believe" series. The program, started by Edward R. Murrow back in the 1950s, asks everyone from big shots like Albert Einstein and William F. Buckley to regular joes like me to write a short essay about the core beliefs that guide and influence their lives. Steinem talked about balance, feminism and nature-versus-nurture; Morris spoke about truth; Gingrich elaborated on the collapse of modern civilization (as if he ever talks about anything else) -- all very good and important topics. Me? I did my five minutes on barbecue. (In fact, NPR found me because of "Believe It," my review of Big Papa's BBQ, in the May 12 issue.)

My five minutes of fame are slated for September 5, during Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Or you can listen to the whole bunch of us holding forth at www.npr.org.

Leftovers: It's suddenly freakin' wine-bar madness around here. Last week, Sean Yontz and Jesse Morreale announced that they were partnering on Sketch, which will debut late this year in the former Le Delice space, at 250 Steele. (A Mexican restaurant has opened in the subterranean spot that once held Bistro Adde Brewster, which shares the same address.) Vines Wine Bar is already pouring on the corner of Mainstreet and Victorian Drive in Parker, and now the Cork House (not to be confused with the Village Cork, at 1300 South Pearl Street, or the Boulder Cork, which has held down its space at 3295 30th Street in Boulder since 1969) occupies the ancestral home of Tante Louise, at 4900 East Colfax Avenue.

But something's funny. The Cork House -- which is doing small-plate American cuisine with a Mediterranean twist, pretty much the exact opposite of Tante Louise's occasionally fusiony French fare -- just opened to the public on August 17, right? It's got new owners (Ed Novak from the Broker and pal Jerry Fritzler), a new staff, a new menu and -- other than the name, which partly honors former Tante owner Corky Douglass and partly is just a good name for a wine bar -- is totally unrelated to the Tante Louise.

So how is it that the Cork House managed to win a spot on Citysearch's list of the top ten most romantic restaurants?

In 2004?

True, if you click on it, all the information and user reviews are from people who had romantic dinners at Tante Louise, but the Cork House is still the place that's listed at the top of the page. Hey, I knew the joint was probably going to be good when I first heard about it, but I had no idea it was going to be so good that it would be able to travel back in time.

Finally, an alert for people left holding the wine bag -- and gift cards -- when Adega closed on August 14: You can send remimbursement requests to general manager Randall Corcoran at Adega@adegadenver.com. Lots of luck.


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