This is One Year In, in which Eater Austin interviews chefs and owners on the occasion of their restaurant's first anniversary. This week, we speak with Carlos Rivero and Chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas at El Alma.
Chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas and owner Carlos Rivero. [Photo: Andrea Grimes/EATX]
Almost overnight in July 2011, a Barton Springs restaurant space with a topsy-turvy history morphed into its latest iteration, El Alma, developed by veteran Austin restaurateur Carlos Rivero of the El Chile Group and Chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas, who's spent time in some of the city's most notable kitchens (see: Jeffrey's, Fonda San Miguel).
The historic building at 1025 Barton Springs Road has, at one time or another, been the Gypsy Lounge, El Chilito, and El Chile—with El Alma, Rivero and his El Chile Group executive chef turned the building into a place for Alcocer-Thomas to showcase her "homespun take on authentic Mexican dishes."
For this edition of One Year In, Eater Austin sits down with Rivero and Alcocer-Thomas to debrief on finding the perfect Mexican Martini, coming to terms with queso and other highlights of the first year at El Alma.
What was the initial vision for El Alma a year ago?
Rivero: I think the vision was for Alma, really, to find a stage for what we’d been talking about doing for a while. Something that could be her menu and distinguish from El Chile and everything else we do. Where we had multiple locations, we obviously decided to take one and roll with it just for Alma. It’s proven to be very successful.
Alcocer-Thomas: I think that Carlos and I saw pretty much the same thing; we saw a building that had a lot of potential, so we really just wanted to do something with this place. The deck upstairs is really pretty, so we were sitting up there going, you know, it has everything. But it definitely needed some love. And it continues to need that. [Laughs] It’s a needy building.
Rivero: Yeah, it’s very funky.
Alcocer-Thomas: But it’s really nice. I was really excited to get to do pretty much a blank slate and just do whatever I wanted. I think once it got going I didn’t really think about it too much. I was like okay, this is the building. This is the menu. This is what we’re going to do. Just go for it.
Chef Alma, how did you develop the menu?
Alcocer-Thomas: This is going to sound like a cheesy story, but it’s true. I took a week off to go see my dad, who was very sick at the time [in Mexico City] I had kind of a structure for a menu and I just sat there for a week, because we really didn’t do anything, and we just talked about this menu back and forth. The whole idea was to have something that just reflected what I like and kind of what I’ve eaten my whole life, being from Mexico City. And also to fit this location and our customers here. I’ve lived in Austin pretty much half my life so I think this menu is a perfect reflection of where I come from and being an Austinite. So that’s the inspiration behind the menu.
What are some specific dishes that you feel are very El Alma?
Alcocer-Thomas: We make a very classic ceviche, but in a way that it has a touch which is El Alma. It has lemon, orange and lime zest and habanero in it. And I don’t think there’s a lot of classic ceviches that have the zest incorporated into it. And the shrimp ceviche, it’s marinated the same way, it’s kind of spicy. And then it has beer on top of it and chili powder. So there’s a lot of things like that, really bright flavors. And very interesting spicy things. not a lot of melted cheese. Because that’s how we eat, now. You don’t want to have a ton of melted cheese. Having said that, fundido is perfectly fine. That’s the part of it that I think is more of the customer than of my style of cooking. Everybody loves a queso fundido and it’s great to share. So I was like queso fundido, that sounds great!
Rivero: Or even queso, which you wouldn’t necessarily find in Mexico City but it’s an Austin staple. Or taking the ceviche and making it in a really cool way but also serving it with not just corn, but flour chips as well. A little bit of spin. A way to differentiate ourselves.
How would you describe the cuisine here? Certainly Tex-Mex has lost some of its shine in Austin; diners seem to be more and more interested in interior Mexican food.
Alcocer-Thomas: I never think of this menu as being interior Mexican. I think, in my mind, that that is a different category of food. I don’t know enough about Tex-Mex to really go like, oh, this is what I’ve taken from Tex-Mex. When I moved to Texas, somebody said they wanted queso, and I was like, ‘What will you like with your queso?’ That’s how foreign Tex-Mex is to me. I think it’s a lot of where you grew up. One of my friends who grew up here, she was like, you have to have a puffy taco. And I was like, I don’t really know a puffy taco. But she loves it, that’s what she loves. I’m all for that. I just don’t really do Tex-Mex because I don’t know it very well.
Rivero: When Alma came on, we brought her on as executive chef to our whole group. We had several locations, especially of El Chile. And it was kind of hard to fit Alma, in particular, into this. El Chile definitely has a huge nod to Tex-Mex, although it’s a bit elevated as well. And then we were trying to differentiate even within our locations, by location, making this place, making the most out of this place. That’s a lot of how it really came to be. We just decided that it needed to be its own thing and it needed to be Alma’s own thing. Because she doesn’t necessarily have that connection to Tex-Mex like maybe I do, because I’m from San Antonio. That started to set the stage for something unique and different.
But it is really hard to classify. It’s not totally interior. It’s definitely not Tex-Mex even though we do have queso on the menu. It’s a little more playful, I think, than the strict rules of interior Mexican food. Some people in this town would just, not go for this being interior, necessarily. I think that’s where we’ve really set ourselves apart and where I think people are surprised when they come in. it isn’t really interior, and it isn’t Tex-Mex. It’s really Alma’s taste, which we all love.
Alcocer-Thomas: My daughter said it best. She said, ‘I don’t understand why people think this food is different, this is what we always eat!’ And I’m like oh yes, this is what you grew up eating. I wanted to bring in that street food that I love. I love the vegetables with chili powder and lime juice. Of course we have pastor tacos, and salsa verde, the raw tomatillo salsa? That’s a jar of salsa that lived in my refrigerator since I have a recollection. They always made a batch and it was always living there. But I also wanted to do some things that are more chef-like. So we have duck confit enchiladas, which I never call duck confit because they don’t go that far, but it’s duck that’s cooked in its own fat and it’s shredded and it’s cooked and then it goes inside a chile relleno and it goes inside a mole enchilada, and that’s the chef part of me. The quail, I had to have quail. I was like, mole and quail are perfect together. So I think in a menu where things are very simple and everyday food, a quail was a little bit of a standout. But people love it and it’s great to have that option. It’s all about options. That’s my favorite part of this whole idea.
Carlos, how do you as a multi-restaurant owner, stay relevant in the fickle restaurant world?
Rivero: Complacency is very dangerous. Especially in this business. I think you have to constantly be reinventing yourself if you want to continue to advance. There’s definitely been an element of luck, but mostly it’s been really great people. Great chefs in particular. Because my focus has definitely been about the food. My locations are not the fanciest. They’re not the most high dollar and the most prominent locations, but despite that we’ve had a great success because of people like Alma, and Jeff [Martinez] and Kristine [Kittrell] who helped me open El Chile. Oliver [Buntix] who helped me open El Chilito, and all the chefs that came from Jeffrey’s, actually. People are the best thing that I must be good at, because I seem to be able to round them up and get them on the ship to go for a ride. It’s fun.
How does it feel to be working in the Austin food scene considering how much the city has grown in culinary popularity over the last year? It’s fortuitous timing for El Alma.
Rivero: The bar keeps getting raised. We fit in perfectly! I’m glad we did it. I think it’s the biggest nod to this location, for sure, and something fresh and new and very high quality.
Alcocer-Thomas: It’s absolutely true; Austin used to be where you had really good restaurants and a lot of choices. Now it’s like, everything under the sun. I think the fact that we have all of these outstanding restaurants and it’s been a year of new and fantastic food, it makes you want to be better at your job. Constantly, I walk in here every single week and I’m so excited to make the special. Because I want our customers to have something different. And also to fit with the local and the farm food, I’ve been doing that for a really long time. But on this scale, at a restaurant in this price range? It’s very different. The challenge is to keep it fresh and keep it happening and be part of that. That energy that is so positive and it’s so fun. We did a lot of the festivals this year and it was great to see people going, ‘Oh, where are you? What are you doing?’ It’s that great energy. People are interested, and that’s the best part. And it’s all customer-driven. It’s what people want.
Rivero: It’s been pretty grassroots. It really has. That’s the best part about Austin. Word-of-mouth is way better than any kind of marketing or advertising. It’s so powerful.
Any changes on the horizon for El Alma in the next year?
Rivero: We’re going to keep adjusting to our increased business, and it’s definitely a challenge. Don’t you think?
Rivero: It’s really fun, but it’s humongously challenging to keep the standard up and continue to do more and more volume. It definitely takes some getting used to in a funky old building like this, too. We’ve had to add every kind of infrastructure to this building because it’s never seen this much business, ever. I think we’ll just focus on our consistency and our quality. I can’t imagine that we’re going to change it too much, other than having varied specials every week.
What about you, chef?
Alcocer-Thomas: I’m personally looking for my personal favorite Mexican Martini. That’s my quest for this summer.
Rivero: That’s true, we’re going to keep working on our beverage program.
Alcocer-Thomas: I really want to be able to adjust a couple of food items to reflect a little more seasonality. That’s very important to me as a person. I eat very seasonally, so I want to have space to do that. I’ve done a little bit but I think there’s room for a little bit more. Creating a little bit more connection with the customer.
So my challenge for the next year is to be on this side [front-of-house] a little tiny bit more. I’m very shy and that’s very hard for me. But I really want to create a rapport with our customers. And to find the perfect Mexican Martini!
Speaking of boozy drinks and specials, El Alma’s serving $4 chilangas and micheladas through the weekend, and this week’s special is a beer battered shrimp taco with buffalo remoulade.