Casa Rubia Chef Omar Flores on Leaving Driftwood and Dallas Diners' Fleeting Love
It's already been a big year for Chef Omar Flores, and we're only four months in. After running the kitchen at well-reviewed seafood spot Driftwood, Flores swooped into Trinity Groves with a modern concept for Spanish tapas. Then, the world noticed. In only the first six months of being open, Casa Rubia has already been named one of the best new restaurants in Texas by Texas Monthly, and one of the best in the Southwest by the James Beard Foundation.
Even though Flores missed out on actually winning the Beard award, he's still committed to making Casa Rubia one of the best restaurants in the city. I sat down with Flores to talk about the last six months, Spain's influence on modernist cuisine, and why you'll never see him starring on Food Network.
What was it like to transition away from running Driftwood to a completely different, brand new concept in Casa Rubia?
It hasn't been a huge difference. I gave Driftwood my all, like this place. I looked at Driftwood being my own restaurant, and with that being said, we just hit the ground running. I really wanted to bring Spanish tapas to Dallas, and I think we're doing okay at that.
Where did you first experience Spanish tapas? Did you go to Spain and come back with that idea?
I've been to Spain a couple of times, and I felt like Dallas was kind of lacking. We've got great Italian restaurants, like Lucia and Nonna. We've got great French restaurants in The French Room and The Mansion, but nothing that's really a good representation of what's going on in Spain right now. They're really ahead of the culinary curve. In opening this place, I wasn't really trying to do anything molecular, I just wanted to take some of the traditional flavors and ingredients of Spain and just try to highlight them?
What are your favorite traditional Spanish ingredients to work with?
I love their olive oils, they're amazing. The smoked paprika, pimenton, I can't tell you how many dishes I use it on. I don't know if the diner likes that or not, but I try to sneak it in almost every dish. The olives, the cheeses, and the meats - so much good stuff comes out of Spain. They produce some of the finest cheeses and meats in the world, as well as the dry goods like olives and olive oils.
The culinary scene across the United States has seen a big shift toward modernist cuisine in the past few years, which is obviously influenced by the modernist movement in Europe. What influence has Spain had in driving modernist cuisine?
They played a huge role. They're probably the leaders in molecular gastronomy. Ferran Adria is one of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy, and everyone else just kind of imitated him. We got kind of tagged as a "modern tapas restaurant," but I don't want people coming in and expecting molecular gastronomy. To be honest, that's really not the way I cook. My idea for "modern Spanish tapas" means using modern ingredients and modern techniques. We do utilize some liquid nitrogen, dehydrate some things, and sous vide a lot of our proteins here, which isn't really typical of real traditional Spanish cuisine.
Do you think that molecular gastronomy gets lumped in with modernist cuisine as a movement? Is that wrong?
Yeah, I think the whole idea behind molecular gastronomy is kind of like a dying trend. Kind of like a fad. A couple of years back it was really trendy to encapsulate things and do foams and blah blah blah, but now I think people are just getting back to cooking simple food and putting their soul on a plate. The food here is familiar, you're not looking at it and thinking "I can't really distinguish what this is."
Do you think molecular techniques distract away from the actual food on the plate?
I think sometimes dishes just get so modernized and there's too many chemicals and techniques that it does take away from what the dish really is. Some people are really good at that. They can take an ingredient, cook it five different ways and make it taste the way it's supposed to taste. But for us, the goal was just to take ingredients that are indigenous to Spain, pair them with ingredients that are local to Dallas, and make them taste good.
Can you give me some examples of incorporating local ingredients into the oeuvre of Spanish cuisine?
I know a lot of the traditional tapas dishes and Spain, and I take these dishes and try to understand and cook them, then reinvent them. Instead of adding something that's out of season, we'll try to make the same dish with something that's more seasonal without taking the creativity out of it. It's spring right now, and you see stuff like ramps, peas, asparagus, and strawberries. We'll take those foods and highlight those on the menu, while making it somewhat Spanish by adding Spanish ingredients.
Are there any Spanish ingredients that you've found it difficult to come across in Dallas?
The seafood is a huge thing. Seafood is so big in Spain, stuff from there and Portugal is just bar-none. You can't get it here. Even if I could, it would be so expensive that people wouldn't pay for it. It's a real challenge to find seafood that is high-quality and still be able to make a profit. People think restaurants make all this money, but it's really just pennies on the dollar. We import a lot of things from Spain, which also isn't cheap. We have kind of been labeled an "expensive" restaurant, but if you took a look back and tried to recreate the dish at home with the ingredients we're using, you'd find that it's a bargain.
Do you think that's true for most other restaurants?
Most restaurants that cook seasonally and get good product, there's a reason that they're a little more expensive than other restaurants. There's a lot more that goes into cost than just the food on the plate. There's the labor, the atmosphere, it's the silverware, it's everything. You're not just paying for that plate of food.
So restaurant owners aren't just out to stiff the little guy?
No, absolutely not. We try to be reasonable, I think our plates are pretty reasonably priced. We do mostly composed plates, some cured meats and cheeses, and some family-style entrees every night, and I think our stuff is pretty in line with the rest of Dallas. Especially quality-wise. I think we're way up there. All this stuff I'm getting from Spain is definitely not cheap.
That complaint from diners seems a little ridiculous to me. Dallas is such a cheap city to dine in when you compare it to New York or L.A.
It really is. I was in Austin last weekend, and it's gotten really expensive, too. The restaurants there are packed, and I was kind of surprised. Dallas is a tough restaurant market. I've been here for six years, and restaurants come and go. They're kind of like fads, here in Dallas. It's a really tough dining scene - you can be hot one minute and kind of stale the next. You've got to stay ahead of the curve and keep moving forward, or else you will be forgotten.
What do you think drives that fast-paced, somewhat finicky segment of the Dallas dining scene?
I'm not sure. In Dallas, there's always restaurants opening. It's probably going to continue that way. Ever since I've been here, restaurants open, they do well for a couple of years, and then they close. I have a lot of admiration for restaurants that can stay open over ten years, especially in this city. It's a tough market, you know? I think a lot of that has to do with the people here in Dallas. They're looking for something new and exciting. Once you're the new kid on the block, it's great, but you've got to find a way to stay new and trendy. Or you close.
Are you finding it difficult to keep up with what people want?
It is difficult. Obviously, we don't like cooking the same thing all the time, and people don't want to eat the same thing every time they go into a restaurant. When I worked at Driftwood, we changed the menu pretty frequently. But at Casa Rubia, I wanted to do simple, seasonal menu changes, and run a good amount of specials every night.
Do you think that works better as a chef, offering rotating specials instead of committing to putting a dish on the menu?
To be honest, I'd love to say that everything I cooked always worked out 100%. But they don't. Not every dish is a gold-star dish. Sometimes I think something is awesome, and nobody buys it. Sometimes I think a dish is mediocre, and then customers love it. Doing specials lets us see what people want. And then maybe they'll see it on the menu in a month or so.
Is there a dish on the menu that you were a little skeptical of at first, but it's done really well?
Our artichoke dish was kind of an on-the-fly thing. Something we needed for a dish on our opening menu wasn't available, so we had to change it up. I ended up putting baby artichokes on the menu with a saffron aioli, preserved lemon, and mojama, which is this really intense salt-cured tuna. It was one of those dishes that I thought "Ehh, I don't know if that's going to work. I like it, but I'm a chef." You know, chefs like different things than regular people. They like things a little more salty and acidic. But we just kind of gave the baby artichokes a go, and they've been one of our hottest dishes.
Do you find that a lot of people are coming in to Casa Rubia without knowing much about the dishes on the menu? Especially since there really aren't a lot of other tapas restaurants in the city, and the entrees are all in Spanish?
You have your educated diners and your uneducated diners. Trinity Groves is a real melting pot of different cuisines, so you get both the diners who go out five days a week and those who only go out once a month. It's kind of a challenge, but the servers here are pretty good at describing the food. If you come and you're a little intimidated, they'll put you at ease.
Which clientele do you think is harder to please - frequent diners, or infrequent diners?
That's tough. I guess the guys that go out to eat five days a week, they have a more experienced palate and they know what they like. So it can kind of go either way. If your food is on point, then you're probably okay. But if you're not having a good day and something is off, they're the first ones to point it out. Those are the people you don't want to lose, because those are the people who pay for the restaurant. That's not to say we don't encourage one-time diners, but call it "amateur hour" on the weekends, when everyone's come in from Duncanville or whatever who only eats out once a twice or year.
After being nominated for a James Beard, that had to bring a lot of pressure. Do you feel pressured by that?
There is more pressure to stay busy and focused. We have kind of a limited staff here, and trying to run a restaurant day-to-day is not an easy task by any means. The most stressful part is just trying to make it day by day. I take every service just like that. When I walk in in the morning, I concentrate on that day, and I'll worry about tomorrow tomorrow. But there's always a constant struggle of planning, ordering. Running a restaurant isn't always a good time.
How do you avoid getting cocky? When everyone from the James Beard Foundation to local publications are heaping praise on your food, is it hard to avoid braggadocio?
I consider myself kind of modest. I admire anyone who takes what they want to do and makes a career out of it. If someone asks me which chef I admire most, I'd tell them that I admire any chef that considers this a career. Because it's a kick in the nuts. It's hard. It takes a long time to make it. There's so many chefs out there who call themselves chefs, and they're not really chefs. They're just on TV. I feel like there's a lot of pressure out there. Food Network used to be cooking shows, but now it's all reality shows and people who are trying to get famous. For me, if you're going to be cocky, make sure you can back it up.
Do you have any interest in that, doing the reality shows and being famous?
No, not really. I didn't grow up that way. My father was a restaurant owner, my mother's a great cook. My idea behind it was to open a restaurant and make good food. I never had the goal of being on TV or doing anything like that. The press is good. I'll take the good press because that's what feeds a restaurant. But I'm not really interested in going on Food Network and making an ass out of myself, to be honest.
Not at all?
Nope, not at all. The shows nowadays are so stupid. Guy Fieri, for example, has this supermarket bonanza show where, I don't know, you go pick a bunch of frozen shit and make some food. Some of these shows are just dumb. Cutthroat Kitchen for example, making people use plastic knives, that's just not cooking to me.
Top Chef is a pretty decent show. They highlight ingredients, have good chefs, and they have good challenges. That's the only show I would probably be on. I applied when I was younger, and I never made it on. I kind of gave up on it. They approached me this year, but I declined. I already had a restaurant, I was busy here, and I felt like I had nothing to prove. When I was younger, I was a lot more hot-headed and I definitely would have gone in an instant. Now, I'm just like "Nah, I don't think so."
How did it feel to be nominated for a James Beard Award, to be among some of the best restaurants in the country with such a young concept?
It was awesome. Too bad we didn't win, but I knew we weren't going to win as soon as we were nominated. We were only a couple of months old, so I was a little surprised. I've eaten at some of the restaurants that were up against us, and I won't say they're better than us, but it is what it is. Everyone who actually wins is in a big city, New York, L.A., Chicago.
Do you think the critical success of Driftwood gave you the confidence to really focus on making Casa Rubia a great place.
Sure. If it wasn't for Driftwood, we probably wouldn't have this place. A lot of the investors in Casa Rubia used to dine at Driftwood, so it was kind of a stepping stone for us. We learned a lot. What to do, what not to do. Without it, we probably wouldn't be here.
What was your biggest lesson from Driftwood? The thing that you came into Casa Rubia thinking "I want this to be different?"
The one thing that really bothered me at Driftwood was the size of the place. It was like 40 seats or something. The kitchen was really tight, and it was a real stressful place to work. Before we even started on Casa Rubia, we made sure that we had an ample amount of space for customers to come in and enjoy it six days a week. When we first started construction at Driftwood, the thought was that we could remodel the old building, or bulldoze it and start from fresh. We were supposed to open in December 2012, and ended up opening in April 2013 just because there were so many issues with the building. To be honest, I think the restaurant would be a lot more successful if it was just bigger.
And Casa Rubia is much more laid back?
Yeah, and there's all new equipment. Driftwood is in the heart of Oak Cliff, in a really old building, and it's just...old. The summertime was brutal there because there was no air conditioning in the kitchen. We had many instances where we had to sit down, take a water break because you'd start seeing double after a while.
What made Trinity Groves the right fit for Casa Rubia?
They offered the space, for one. They were willing to build to suit, and they were on board with our ideas. And they were willing to pay for it, so that's an easy decision to make. Right now, [Trinity Groves is] kind of like a construction zone of restaurants, but if you know what's going on here in the next couple of years, it's really exciting. They're building more restaurants, hotels, apartment complexes, an ampitheatre. So it's going to be a really cool place. When I first moved to Dallas, the only reason you came down here was to buy a gun at Ray's. Other than that, you stayed away from this area. But they're sinking some serious coin into it, so it's going to be a badass spot.
As this community grows in Dallas, how do you want to grow Casa Rubia?
I'd like to have another location, actually. I think this restaurant concept is easily transferable to another part of Dallas, Houston or Austin. I'd like to take on the whole Southwest, but my goal is to open a new restaurant in the next few years if this place is successful.
So no major changes to what you're doing?
I think we're going to stick with what we know. The restaurant will obviously evolve and so will the way we cook. I'm planning on taking a trip to Spain this summer, and I'm thinking I'll come back with some new ideas and things to add to the menu. We've had some things that didn't work and those are gone. From fall to winter to spring, we've had some seasonal changes as far as produce and proteins go. But as far as the cuisine goes and the execution goes? We'll probably be keeping it the same.
But it seems like you've something that's going to last, awards be damned.
Yeah, I hope so. Dallas is a tough city, but I think we'll be alright. There's no reason to get ahead of ourselves. I was always taught to not count your chickens before they hatch. The restaurant has been doing really well, but we're only six months in. We'll see where we are in a few years. I worked at Abacus for almost six years, and they've been around since 1989. A restaurant like that is a huge accomplishment. For a restaurant to remain successful for that amount of time is pretty impressive. Talk to me in 10 years and I might be a little cocky, but six months in, I'm pretty humble.