Review Date: 07/03/15
Opened in late June 2015, Terlingua is a "boutique BBQ restaurant combining house-smoked meats
with Latin American fare," according to the website. Its minimalist interior decor shuns both the barbecue and Mexican stereotypes and instead goes for a clean look more associated with sushi restaurants. With only a half dozen tables, less than a dozen barstools and a quartet of picnic tables outside, Terlingua is a small scale restaurant with a more personal feel than most. The owners recently lived in Austin.
I like that most of the menu items are available in two serving sizes. This allows you to really dig into a dish you love by going large, or really dig into menu variety by going small. Most of the items are small plates for sharing. A blackboard menu announces the ceviche and smoked barbecue options, which change nightly. On my first visit, those offerings included babyback pork ribs, brisket, pulled pork and pulled lamb.
I visited Terlingua solo on their third night of operation. Unable to hit the traditional barbecue hard without my usual accomplices, I opted for dishes that would travel well, such as the two chilis, among my quartert of selections.
Chicharones: Pork belly, smoked first, then fried to get that crackly surface just a little more crunchy. The meat is tender, very moist and full-fledged juicy in spots. Smoke is light, so you get more of a hoggy flavor, though that is more gentle and deferential to the light drizzle of syrup that has a very floral essence—that's because it's hibiscus honey. Leafy greens can be used as a respite from the pork or a wrap for it; it's up to you. This dish works on many levels, but it's the wonderful texture that outshines flavor. Unlike some pork belly, where very careful carving is required to avoid a mouthful of fat, the fat here is rendered into a lubricating liquid melted into the meat, making every bite edible.
Green chili: A small order ($10) gets you a bowl enough for a small meal for one or a substantial tasting for two. It's a very different green chili from what you've probably seen before, starting with an eye-popping garnish: a baby back rib, resting on top. Dunk it or eat it plain; it's up to you. But the fun continues, as the expected well-softened shreds of pork deep down are contrasted by the floating pork cubes that appear to be fresh off the smoker—still crisp and juicy, not yet chili-soaked. Vegetation includes corn, potatoes and large (by chili standards) chunks of still-raw onion. Heat is very noticeable but very doable. Smoke is also noticeable and a nice part of the mix.
Red chili: This one is more traditional, with chunks and shreds of smoked beef beneath the surface and a few thin slices of freshly added smoked brisket floating on top as a garnish. Though flavorful, this is just a tad less smoky and less spicy than the chili verde. Like its counterpart, it's served with a few pieces of grilled flatbread that contrast the grill intensity with the sweetness of honey butter. Eat it as is or as a vessel for a makeshift brisket taco; it's up to you.
Beef tongue and cheek tacos: A small order gets you two tacos, with the shells filled only with the beef. Around the perimeter of the plate lie all of the accoutrements: grilled scallion (a highlight), finely chopped onion, thin radish slices, cilantro, salsa verde. While the beef portion in the tacos was quite substantial, it came in many small pieces rather than a few larger ones. That got more surface area on each piece for extra crispness and smokiness, but it also got less distance to the center, translating into borderline dryness. With the toppings added, that wasn't an issue at all. The non-traditional vegetables, the depth of beefiness in the non-traditional cuts, the grill char on the scallions, the smokiness of the meat and the do-it-yourself aspect (again, it's up to you) all combined to make these tacos a win. With a little more give and moisture to the beef—likely to come as Terlingua gets its sea legs—these can be a huge win.
Rib: You didn't think I was going to skip how the rib was, did you? It's a babyback, served unsauced, as were all of the examples I saw on other tables, though I thought I also saw some St Louis cut too. Mine was perfectly tender without even considering being mushy. It yielded a textbook bite with good juiciness, assertive smoke and more of a shy approach with the rub. Overall, impressive and promising.
Brisket: I'm not going to similarly comment on the brisket, since a) while a rib is a rib, all brisket slices are not equal (all I had was the garnish), and b) while I enjoyed a few spoons of the chili beneath, I didn't address the brisket until a few days later as leftovers.
The kinks seemed to be few and far between on night 3.
Joe Ricchio, author of the blog Food Coma.ME, tends bar on Mondays and Saturdays. It was pretty cool seeing a bar customer recognize him and compliment him on his writing.
The Bottom Line
So far, so good. Latin meets barbecue in an interesting menu with that rare combination of ambitiousness and approachability. Strong flavors, strong smoke and mostly reliable textures are good signs going forward. This is only a first look review, so I'll be going forward with a deeper look into the menu and more focus on the barbecue staples in an upcoming formal review.
Blueberry Files First Look at Terlingua
Yelp reviews of Terlingua
Zomato reviews of Terlingua
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