When the James Beard Foundation nominates a chef for Best Chef of the South, and that chef goes on to open a restaurant on the border between Baldwin Park and Audubon Park, local foodies start salivating. The new restaurant — called Txokos (cho-kos) Basque Kitchen — pays homage to a people whose history is lost in time, but whose culture is largely sustained through the txokos, or gastronomic societies, that honor the act of cooking and sharing communal meals. That’s news worthy of the cover of a magazine.
For more than 2,000 years, Basques have lived between Spain and France on the western foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. Even pre-Roman authors record the Basques showing a fierce attachment to their autonomy in individual farmsteads, called caserío, the isolation of which resulted in a strong sense of family. Centuries of would-be conquerors have failed to encroach upon their local privileges, as the Basques managed to retain some degree of local autonomy. Today, it is the “sacred quality” of these Basque kitchens that results in respect for the preparation and sharing of food, allowing people to gather in celebration of their heritage.
In February, the James Beard Foundation announced the semifinalists for the 2014 Restaurant and Chef Awards. Fifth-generation Floridian Chef Henry Salgado was a nominee, out of 40,000 entries. Chef Henry, who grew up cooking with his Cuban grandmother in his hometown of Tampa, was nominated based on what he created in a legendary New Smyrna restaurant called the Spanish River Grill.
Now Chef Henry and his partner/wife/chef Michele are residents of Baldwin Park, and we’re lucky enough to have this level of talent cooking in a beautiful and welcoming new restaurant at the East End Market — where they grow some of their fresh ingredients right in the garden that fronts on Corrine Drive.
With all of that “history” — old and new — in my head as I entered the Txokos Basque Kitchen, my expectations were admittedly high. I’m thrilled to say that all of my expectations were exceeded — in every way — by the dining experience in this new space.
My dining partner and I arrived during happy hour (Tuesday through Sunday, 4 to 7 p.m.) and enjoyed $3 and $4 wines and ciders. That includes the Santo Cristo Garnacha — a rich pinot noir that is a steal at $4 a glass.
True to the Basque culture, guests can experience authentic pintxos (the Basque version of the small plate menu). We began with Pulpo de Gallego, which is a surprisingly tender grilled octopus served with caramelized onion in a peppery Bilbao sauce. I love octopus, and I’m accustomed to the time it takes to chew it. This was a whole new experience, one that allowed me to enjoy tender octopus, with the added taste sensation of a (new-to-me) Basque fish sauce.
We moved on to the Mussels, steamed in a traditional lemon juice, but served here with Greek gigante beans and little chunks of ham and sausage. It’s amazing how much taste these additions added to this always-favorite dish. And I should also mention that while this is called “small plate,” the portions are enough to share — happily.
We then “treated ourselves” by ordering what is simply called “FOIE” on the menu, with the sub-heading “duck two ways.” I sincerely believe that ordering duck liver is an act of decadence — that I’m known to give in to. The “two ways” on this item is an offering that includes not only duck liver, but a duck egg in the center with pieces of porcini mushroom over a potato puree. It was incredible — and worth the calories that were already adding up in my head. My dining partner declared simply, “That is out of control.” (It was that good.)
After an appropriate foie digestion time, we ordered the Oxtail Matador and the Cobia Brandada as our entrees. Knowing the wondrous things that can happen with oxtail on a Spanish menu, my taste buds were thrilled with the fall-off-the-bone meat braised in sherry and served over goat-cheese-enhanced grits. Each taste enhanced the other, and I loved the result.
The ultimate surprise taste treat, however, is the Cobia Brandada. Now, cobia can have a rich, sweet taste, but in the end it’s a white fish. Chef Henry, however, wraps his cobia in serrano ham, which is a whole new experience in eating fish. Perhaps I should have put a “spoiler alert” on this one, but I don’t think I’ve ever tasted fish wrapped and grilled in ham — especially a ham that was considered a delicacy even in ancient Rome. So if you are pondering … “fish wrapped in ham” … trust me on this one — it’s a winner.
As a matter of fact, every part of dining at Txokos is a winning experience, from the walk past the fresh garden in front, to the wait-staff that sincerely cares about your experience. And then there’s the award-winning food. Glory hallelujah, there’s another great restaurant in Central Florida. Go and enjoy — with my highest recommendation.