Few restaurants face the double-edged sword of expectation confronting Paco’s Mexican Cuisine.
Since its roots are in Paco & John Mexican Diner — one of Fort Worth’s most beloved, discreet gems of a Mexican restaurant, which closed in 2015 — it has a built-in fan base expecting great things from the successor.
Well, rest easy, all you Paco & John fans.
The 2-month-old Paco’s Mexican Cuisine not only revives a few of the hybrid marriages of Mexican and French tastes that planted Paco & John on the local culinary map, but it also delivers a series of highly refined jaunts into the best of Mexican cooking.
The key to Paco’s Mexican Cuisine’s success is continuity: Francisco Islas, who co-owned Paco & John with Bernard Tronche, the owner of Saint-Emilion (where Islas worked for 21 years), started Paco’s Mexican Cuisine after ending a seven-year run with Paco & John. Along with his wife, Bertha, the restaurant’s sauce mastermind, and his 22-year-old son, Francisco “Paco” Islas, who charmingly mans the front of the house, they moved into the West Magnolia space formerly occupied by Temaki Sushi and Nha Trang Vietnamese Cuisine.
The owners could have double-parked while staging their move-in, which took all of 2 1/2 weeks. They speedily adopted all of Nha Trang’s interior furnishings, down to the pale avocado wall color.
Paco’s Mexican Cuisine embraces the culinary heritage of Mexico’s Hidalgo province, specifically the city of Pachuca. Around the Hidalgo hearth, you’ll find a fervent love of the empanada and tlacoyos, the Aztec name for a tamale-like vessel made from homemade masa. Paco’s Mexican larder boasts cilantro, chorizo, duck and pork, green and red moles, onion, black beans, sour cream, and such cheeses as soft Chihuahua, queso fresco or the harder cotija.
Over the course of a single lunch, supplemented by a few select items from a recently debuted dinner menu, Paco’s proved to be one of Fort Worth’s most authentic purveyors of unpretentiously sophisticated Mexican dining.
And what better way to prove its bona fides than with a warming bowl of poblano-queso soup ($5.95), with poblano peppers augmented by strips of ripened avocado, playing off slices of roasted chicken and topped with snappy tortilla strips.
The dinner starter that immediately echoed the Franco-Mexican marriage often witnessed at Paco & John was the snail crepes ($6.95). Carefully chopped snails were tucked deep into a “crepe” envelope and floated in a shallow pool of scallion-colored, garlic-suffused oil.
The puerco al pastor torta ($7.95) was the kind of hulking sandwich that could easily feed two roamers at a boisterous street festival. The sandwich all but detonated with roasted pork flavor — no wonder, considering that the meat spent the night in a pineapple and onion bath.
The lunchtime shrimp enchilada plate ($9.95) led with perfectly cooked small shrimp, propelled by the slight heat from a tomatillo sauce, all stuffed into two large crescent-shaped enchiladas. The shrimp held the extra-spice trump card of being marinated in a diablo sauce ignited by a firecracker-small chile de arbol.
Paco’s mussels ($21.95) combined the French love for anything mussels with such Mexican touches as tequila, dabs of pico de gallo, the slight fire of cayenne pepper, paprika and a dash of Tapatio hot sauce (a sassier cousin of Tabasco). Honestly, as well-executed as the mussels were, they were bit players to the intoxicating, briny-flavored broth.
The mussels were mere prelude to the gustatory glories of Paco’s Dos Moles ($21.95). The red mole was the sublime shawl over a splayed baby quail, while its sibling green mole etched a selection of fat-ringed pork loin slices.
Clinics should offer Paco’s red mole as a pain reliever. Its depth of flavor, based on a three-hour process involving chocolate (lending it a mahogany tint), dozens of dried herbs and pumpkin seeds, produced a taste epiphany, inspiring thoughts of smoky, sweet richness, with ethereal grace notes. This one sauce encapsulated so much that is beguilingly sophisticated Mexican cooking.
Meanwhile, the green mole derived its structure from pine nuts, walnuts and almonds, while bringing a more peppery, though not searing, heat than its red brother — all sending a spicy jolt through each bite of juicy pork loin.
Such an intense excursion into Mexican gastronomy culminated with the unassumingly delicious churros ($2.50). A single 8-inch cylinder of fried dough bisected my plate, bordered by dots of freshly whipped cream. It was warm and crunchy, coated in cinnamon and brown sugar and encasing a vein of luxurious pastry cream.
The simple pleasures of crispy warm churros, following on the heels of the complexity of Dos Moles, traced the farthest reaches of Paco’s Mexican universe — where the boundaries of Mexican culinary tradition are celebrated, and pushed, in the space of a single meal.