His own noise concerns be damned, Chris Svetlik went ahead and booked the four-man mariachi band. Republic Cantina, which sells freshened-up takes on Tex-Mex standards in Truxton Circle, unveils its finalized dinner menu tonight. After about two months of hosting reservations-only “preview” dinners, the cafe full of red bricks officially opens to the public at 5 p.m.
Svetlik, a Houston area native who co-founded the Republic Kolache company that now sells Texan-Czech pastries all over town, is worried the trumpet might be too loud. But the night calls for a celebration, and he knows the importance of tradition — particularly among Tex-pats — so there will be musicians singing Spanish love songs while wielding a horn, an accordion, a guitar, and a bass tonight at 43 N Street NW.
Online reservations for the previews sold out at such a rapid clip that Svetlik says he and partner Sam Lipnick could afford to take their time tweaking recipes. Chef Antonio Burrell, who worked at Masa 14 and helped open El Centro D.F. on 14th Street, has spent the extra time developing a brisket Czech sausage served as an option on fajita platters and a Texan classic: chicken-fried steak with a pair of gravies (traditional white cream and chipotle based).
Svetlik’s goal is to keep Tex-Mex staples intact while picking spots to make the starch- and fat-heavy cuisine a little bit lighter. So there will be free chips and salsa — a tradition the owner calls “beautiful and bizarre” — but re-fills cost $1. Beans and rice won’t automatically accompany entrees but are available as sides for $2. Burrell spent months getting the five-ingredient flour tortillas just right. They’re made with vegetable shortening, not the typical lard, so vegetarians can dive in, too.
“I think we’ve learned the dishes that you can’t mess with,” Svetlik says, going on to list enchiladas, queso, and those flour tortillas.
Queso blends in milk and cheese but relies on good old Velveeta for the ideal melting texture. “It is, from a food science standpoint, an amazing substance,” Svetlik says. Cheddar and Oaxaca cheese and onion enchiladas with chili gravy represent another pillar of the genre. Smoked brisket sourced from Hill Country in Chinatown goes into the beef enchiladas.
Sizzling fajita platters are the nexus of tradition and innovation. Burrell uses outside skirt steak — the most traditional cut — but marinates his meat in Korean gochujang paste instead of pineapple, which can make protein mealy after too long of a soak. Platters come with up to three fillings, including unconventional options like achiote pork belly and shrimp with Old Bay bacon butter.
“We intend to strike a balance between really honoring the traditions of Tex-Mex that I grew up with as well as finding small little ways to put our stamp on it,” Svetlik says.
That philosophy extends to dessert — there’s a clever mash-up of tres leches cake and banana pudding with a bruleed Nilla wafer crumble — and drinks.
Bar manager Carl Grossglass, who used to work at acclaimed Atlanta cocktail bar Holman & Finch, was responsible for getting the consistency right in the avocado margaritas. “It is actually as trendy as it sounds,” Svetlik says. “It’s been made for decades.” Less recognizable? A reposado tequila old fashioned with a grapefruit twist or spicy-sour margarita made with brine left over from pickled chiles that go into salsa. Wines come from Texas, Arizona, and Mexico. Three tasting flights ($20 to $28) are designed around tequila, mezcal, and other agave spirits: sotol “tastes like a burning herb garden,” raicilla is compared to “cheez whiz,” and bacanora is described as something akin to “a fine tequila.”
Republic Cantina operates as a cafe in the mornings and afternoons, selling Small Planes coffee, breakfast tacos, kolaches, and other pastries from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends, when Svetlik says they routinely sell 500 tacos per day.
Here’s a look at the opening dinner menu for Republic Cantina: