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Elote is Elite

The words “gluten-free” and “Tex-Mex” combine in a way that makes your average cowboy grimace. In reality, Mexican cuisine, like most Western regional cuisines, is heavy on green veggies, beans, and corn, all of which lack the particular protein that gluten-intolerant folks can’t digest. The premise behind North Fort Worth’s Elote Mexican Kitchen, according to co-owners (and wife and husband) Cynthia and Justin Loeb, is fresh, healthy Tex-Mex with multiple flourless options. The couple also owns the nearby Oliva Italian Eatery, and Cynthia’s extensive restaurant experience –– both front and back of the house and sommelier work –– shows. It’s there in the décor (gorgeous black-and-white prints by Austin-based artist Alfonso Huerta) and the eclectic menu.

Elote’s menu is full of unusual takes on Tex-Mex. There are no fajitas and no orange Velveeta queso, but there are some semi-exotic offerings that I’ve never seen before, like the Elote Especial: a whole roasted ear of corn slathered with mayo, cotija cheese, and spices. The corn was roasted to almost-burned in some spots, but the heat brought out the sweetness in the kernels. Add that to the piquant cheese and spicy chile sprinkle, and the appetizer was absolutely, messily divine — but not enough to share.

The Chips Fiesta (salsa, queso, and guacamole) seemed to be the best way to sample the three Tex-Mex faves, and the serving was so generous a diner could make a meal out of this one appetizer. The salsa was heavy on crushed tomatoes, which gave the whole dish a mild and slightly disappointing ketchup-y taste –– although the gringo at the table did prefer this mild salsa to other, spicier versions. The white queso, a combo of queso blanco and pepper jack cheese, got better and tastier as it cooled. Elote’s version of guacamole was excellent: heavy on the red onion, not too spicy, not too much cilantro.

At Elote, you pick your item (taco, burrito, salad, whatever) and then pick your “substance”: the protein or veggie stuffing. The burrito can be ordered either with flour wrapping or as a “bare-ito,” a.k.a. served with the stuffing on a plate. The slow-cooked brisket sounded good and, ordered as a burrito, tasted better. The flour tortilla was so generously stuffed with the meat (fall-apart tender and delicious) that the beans, jack cheese, rice, and lettuce were a little overwhelmed. The ginormous construction was served cut in half, leaving my dining companion to giggle about “rolling a fat one.”

The salad, to which we added shredded chicken, was also an excellent choice. A generous plate of mixed lettuce came out with the savory and wonderful bird in a little corn tortilla cup. The dressing choices included a Caesar-avocado, which was inventive but unnecessary –– the guacamole left over from the starter course called out to us. For fun, we added a side of the spicy spinach. The sautéed green was hotter than Texas concrete in July, although a generous dump of the queso cooled off the fire and enhanced the flavor of both.

The Loebs have done a great job in creating a fast-casual dining experience. The margaritas –– a mere $5 all day, every day –– were homemade, strong, and better than any I’ve tasted in upscale establishments. The far North Fort Worth location suffers from being an island in the middle of extensive construction (especially if you approach from the Keller side). The kitchen is not strictly gluten- free, because of the presence of the flour tortillas. However, the staff says they’re prepared in a separate area. If you’re truly gluten-free for health reasons, you might ask. Otherwise, just enjoy.


Dinning Review

Although far north Fort Worth and Keller have their share of Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants, most of them are a bit of a drive from the Villages of Woodland Springs, one of Fort Worth’s northernmost neighborhoods. Cynthia and Justin Loeb, Woodland Springs residents who have run the neighborhood’s popular Oliva Italian Eatery since 2010, saw a Tex-Mex void in the subdivision. So they recently opened Elote Mexican Kitchen, an inexpensive, fast-casual place in a shopping center anchored by a new Kroger.

This is Tex-Mex with a twist: Cynthia Loeb is gluten-free, hence almost all of Elote’s menu is gluten-free. The one exception is the flour tortillas, which are prepared on a different surface from other restaurant offerings. Elote also offers items such as soy cheese and tofu sour cream for vegan diners, an unusual touch for a small suburban restaurant. (Even though the restaurant is physically in Fort Worth, Cynthia Loeb says she considers it to be part of Keller, pointing out that downtown Keller is much closer than downtown Cowtown.)

The menu is fairly small, the ordering system simple: Choose your style (one or two tacos, or burrito, etc.), add your substance (beef, chicken, pork, seafood or vegetables), and add in “souped-up” ingredients (spicy spinach, angry chiles, vegan items) for an extra 50 cents to a dollar if you wish.

Orders are taken at the front counter, and you’re given a number — but unlike some taco joints we could name, Elote has runners who bring your order to the table as soon as your number is called. On a Friday-evening visit, we hadn’t even sat down when a server came out with our appetizers.

Naturally, we had to try the Elote especial ($2.99), the restaurant’s take on its namesake Mexican street corn, appealingly dripping with mayo and melty cotija cheese, with a dusting of house-made chili powder and a hint of lime. It’s served on the cob, making for a pretty presentation but awkward sharing (not that that stopped us), and the flavors combined nicely, with the cheese the standout.

We started with the chips fiesta appetizer ($6.99), a trio that let us sample the restaurant’s queso, guacamole and salsa. The queso was the winner here; although at first we thought it was served too lukewarm, that helped it thicken quickly, and the flavors of the white American/jack cheese blend, accented with poblano and red peppers, intensified as the queso cooled. The guacamole was fresh, and although it might not have been earth-shattering, there wasn’t a bit of it left on the plate when we were through.

The one disappointment was the salsa, which had a good tomato flavor but no spiciness, and was too thin to be a good dip. The chunkiness improved on a second visit, but the salsa was still mild, a trend we found in many dishes we sampled; fire-eaters might want to kick things up with the bottled sauces or house-made spicy salt at each table.

Or try one of the zippier additions, such as the spicy spinach I added to the grilled-shrimp taco in a taco combo (two tacos plus rice and beans, $6.49). The pepper-flecked spinach (50 cents extra) gave just the right amount of kick, mixing well with the pleasantly briny shrimp. For the other taco, I went with pulled pork, which had a nice meaty taste but could have used some heat.

My wife added even more kick to her vegetarian taco ($2.49) by ordering the angry chiles (50 cents), a serrano/caramelized onion mix that heat seekers should try. She’s a vegetarian always looking for a dish that will call her back to a restaurant, and the mixture of sauteed vegetables and hot peppers at Elote did the trick. The tacos are served open-faced, and are stuffed to tortilla-stretching proportions when folded; one was plenty for her.

A few days later, I returned solo to try one of Elote’s burritos ($6.49) stuffed with braised beef, rice, beans, jack cheese, lettuce and tomato, with sour cream on the side. The burritos are large and served in two halves, one of which I left unadorned; it was satisfying, but the other half was better with help from the angry chiles.

Elote also has 10 beers on tap, and orange juice-based, machine-made margaritas ($5), available frozen or on the rocks. But the biggest thing it has to offer is its friendly vibe; staff members would come by and make conversation and yet manage not to be intrusive. This is what the Loebs do best, designing places that are attractive (Cynthia Loeb is particularly fond of the many paintings by Austin-based artist Alfonso Huerta that adorn the walls) and relaxing hangouts — just what many people are looking for in a neighborhood joint.

Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872 Twitter: @rphilpot

Bud Kennedy - Eat Beats

Gluten and Grease Free Elote Kitchen

Elote Mexican Kitchen is our first purely suburban taqueria.

It’s gringo-friendly, child-friendly and even gluten-free if you just avoid a flour tortilla.

There’s nothing bland about it. But the spice all comes from optional serrano “angry chiles,” a table “hot salt” and Yucatan-based El Yucateco sauces.

“Out here, we have to cater to all ages and people from all over the world,” said Cynthia Wilson Loeb, a success at her Oliva Italian Eatery nearby on North Beach Street in the squeaky-clean Woodland Springs subdivision.

“The hardest restaurant to open is Tex-Mex, because everybody has different taste.”

The Loebs and chef Andres Estrella decided on white queso over yellow, shredded chicken over grilled, and a chunky, mild salsa instead of smoky chipotle.

The menu offers Baja-style tacos ($2.49) or burritos ($6.49) with a choice of nine finely chopped or shredded slow-roasted or grilled meats.

Loeb is proud that the dishes are meticulously prepared and not oily or greasy. Even the nachos come with only a light dusting of shredded cotija cheese.

The rice is not fried, and no fillers or binders are used, keeping all the side dishes gluten-free, she said.

The elote name refers to the roasted corn ($2.99).

Loeb talked about her gluten-free cooking on a recent Martha Stewart Living satellite radio show.

Elote has 10 beers on tap and margaritas, but does not have the beer-hall atmosphere of other taco shops

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