El Patio Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Garden opened in the Warehouse District late last year with a lengthy, ambitious menu of elevated Mexican fare in a yawning Carondelet Street space.
As is often the case with new restaurants, there have been hiccups and changes along the way. In February, the opening executive chef departed. The menu has since been streamlined into a shorter list of appetizers, tacos and a few entrees. In a way, the new menu feels like a smart approach. The stunning space has colorful murals inside and outside and there's a beautiful patio adorned with pendant lights. It feels best suited for a drinking crowd.
As the name implies, tequila drinks are king here, and there's an excellent jalapeno margarita that's fiery, sweet and tart.
Fresh, warm and salty corn tortilla chips beg for the chunky guacamole drizzled with chili oil and the cumin-laced salsa, a thin but flavorful medley. Velvety queso is a step above most Tex-Mex renditions with jalapeno adding a touch of heat.
What has remained constant on the menu are the tacos and a rotating selection of mole dishes. A creative fried chicken dish includes mole negro, sweet plantains and pickled red onions. An herbaceous green mole highlights a chicken taco, in which soft, shredded chicken is topped with plenty of cilantro, diced white onions and lime. It's a much lighter dish than one might expect.
Fish tacos feature crispy fried fish in a light cornmeal batter dressed with avocado crema and remoulade flavored with chilies de arbol. Punchy pickled red cabbage provides a layer of crunch, color and acidity.
Of the vegetarian tacos, a smoked and fried mushroom version is the most successful. The tempura-battered mushrooms are topped with charred sweet corn salsa and poblano aioli. Vegetarian tacos change often, and on one visit, a small selection included one with black beans, green beans and tomatoes, and it left much to be desired.
Al pastor tacos were another misfire. Charred bits of meat were tough and couldn't be saved by otherwise tasty accoutrements, which included a deeply smoky and spicy paste made from guajillo peppers, juicy chunks of pineapple and a snappy red onion salsa.
Though much of the menu is designed with creative whimsy, there are dishes that exemplify classic Mexican techniques and flavors. Pork carnitas was one of the best items on the menu. Soft, shredded meat carried all of the characteristic flavors of pork butt or shoulder cooked for hours. While some versions are crispy, these were soft, shredded and juicy. Topped with a classic medley of white onion and cilantro, they needed nothing else.
I never met an elote I didn't like, and the charred corn cobs slathered with aioli and creamy nibs of queso fresco here did not disappoint. The sweet corn was brushed in chili and lime butter and sprinkled with chives so that the final product carried notes of smoke, citrus and heat.
Though much of the menu has changed since opening, the dishes that have stayed are mostly successful, and it will be interesting to see how El Patio evolves.