Chris Svetlik is a Tex-Mex evangelist, but he’s also a businessman and a student of modern times. Svetlik first built a customer base of erstwhile Texans by founding the wholesale Czech pastry business Republic Kolache. For years he’d been hearing demands — some from customers and some from his selfish internal monologue — to open a restaurant that trafficked in queso, fajitas, enchiladas, and margaritas. When he finally did it near Truxton Circle this summer, Svetlik wanted to update some standards to suit trendy tastes and keep others encased in a block of processed cheese.
Since Republic Cantina opened in July, first as a daytime destination for Small Planes coffee and breakfast tacos that showed off unassailable flour tortillas, then as a full-service dinner spot that marked its inaugural night with a mariachi band, Svetlik has been asking customers to embrace a few changes to the Tex-Mex dogma. While developing the menu, opening chef Antonio Burrell pulled back on the dairy, weaved in more regional Mexican influence, and incorporated components typically found the barbecue pits and roadside diners of the expansive state. (Burrell has since left the restaurant, and Little Pearl alum Billy Nelson has taken his place).
There are cheese and onion enchiladas, of course, but they integrate Oaxaca cheese inside rolled tortillas and replace the blanket of orange cheddar on top with a light sprinkling of cotija. Fajita platters have options for achiote pork belly with habanero pineapple salsa, an homage to al pastor, and smoked brisket sausage in the Texas Czech style. On the cafe menu, right there alongside breakfast tacos, there’s a gosh darn avocado toast with radish and cotija on sourdough. Festive evolutions of popular drinks include a shrimp-topped “Cevichelada” and a “Pico-back” shot of tequila that comes with a chaser of leftover juice from the basic salsa of tomatoes, onions, and spicy green chiles.
“There is a comforting level of permissiveness we’re seeing from customers allowing us to push boundaries a little bit,” Svetlik says. “Folks are not being so, so strict with how we must adhere to tradition.”
Svetlik, a native of Spring, Texas, in the greater Houston area, knows that nostalgia is the driving force bringing may customers through the door. So Republic Cantina is careful not to take too many liberties with dishes like enchiladas, which have varieties sporting subtle transgressions like including smoked brisket or stewed carne guisada, and queso.
The bookshelf near the coffee counter at Republic Cantina shows that Svetlik, Burrell, and partner Sam Lipnick have done their homework — there’s a copy of the Tex-Mex Cookbook from Houston-based writer Robb Walsh, which explains how immigrants like the chili queens of San Antonio and “Mama” Ninfa Laurenzo built the foundation of the cuisine.
“The story that we try to tell here,” Svetlik says, “is that while Tex-Mex gets a bad rap for being this ‘gringo-fied’ or Americanized version of Mexican food, it is truly the food of Mexican immigrants in Texas.”
A research trip through San Antonio, Austin, and Houston helped give the restaurant team a starting point. Svetlik notes that several other restaurants across the country — Redheaded Stranger in Nashville, Muchacho in Atlanta, and Bullard in Portland — have encouraged Republic Cantina to blur the definition of Tex-Mex. Texans and trend-chasing diners alike have already gravitated to the cafe full of red bricks, cacti, and sports banners. One was spotted a couple months ago wearing a cannabis leaf bolo tie.
With business moving along, Svetlik says the next step for the restaurant is to add combo platters that are ubiquitous in the cuisine’s native state. For now, here’s a look at a handful of a la carte drinks and dishes that show off Republic Cantina’s new-wave Tex-Mex:
Smoked Tuna Crudo Tostada
Many high-end Mexican restaurants have a tuna tostada dressed sporting raw fish with a deep pink sheen dressed in a spicy salsa. Similarly, customers can’t throw a dart in a Mediterranean restaurant these days without spearing a marinated fish crudo. Republic Cantina unifies those familiar dishes and brings on a hint of barbecue with light smoke on the tuna that’s mixed with habanero pineapple salsa, corn, and guacamole. There’s also a shrimp ceviche tostada and a smoked mushroom tostada for vegetarians. “We wanted to find a good space to do something that is lighter, fresher, healthier,” Svetlik says. “ Frankly, it makes it a little easier for return visits because you can walk out feeling like you had a more balanced meal.”
Gochujang Beef and Czech Sausage Fajitas
Fajita platters at Republic Cantina offer a cast-iron canvas for experimentation. Burrell explains that marinating outside skirt steak in Korean chile paste comes is more of a practical idea than a subversive one: leaving out the pineapple juice that often plays a role keeps the meat from getting mealy and allows the kitchen more holding time with the beef. Burrell developed a recipe for Czech sausage after Svetlik’s father insisted on having him try a prime example from his hometown of Hallettsville, Texas. Shrimp cooked in Old Bay bacon butter are a Mid-Atlantic tweak to Tex-Mex shrimp Brochette. Svetlik says melting Oaxaca cheese on the bottom of the sizzling pan provides a textural upgrade to the side of grated cheddar restaurants often offer as an upcharge.
Svetlik has deep emotional ties to chicken-fried steak, a revered roadside indulgence in Texas. He used to request birthday trips to order legendary jumbo slab of battered cube steak at Goodson’s Cafe in Tomball. It’s a diner dish through and through, but Burrell came up with a cross-hatched bavette steak version with dual gravies — a traditional pepper-spiced cream and a chipotle sauce — to help it fit in. “It has a big question of, ‘Does it really make sense for us?’ It really doesn’t overlap with Tex-Mex much,” Svetlik says. “I’ve been really pleased with the reaction to it.”
Tres Leches Banana Pudding Cake
From the moment Republic Cantina started serving “preview dinners” to try out its menu on a limited number of guests, Svetlik says this dessert was “a runaway hit.” Burrell, the chef, says the banana pudding cream that replaces sweetened condensed milk sauce is adapted from the recipe his mother made while he was growing up in Louisburg, North Carolina. Two layers of cake mix in the pudding sauce, Nilla cookie crumble, and caramelized bananas.
This article has been updated to reflect that Antonio Burrell is no longer the chef at Republic Cantina