sWhen Anastacia Quinones won Eater Dallas’s 2018 chef of the year award, she didn’t have a restaurant. At least not in the traditional sense. At that point, Quinones was still figuring it all out, running a taco pop-up after her abrupt departure from the Cedars Social, a restaurant that quickly earned her critical acclaim.
Shortly after her win, though, Quinones found a new home. She took over the kitchen at chic Bluffview eatery José, where her vibrantly colored, deeply flavored tortillas and innovative Mexican dishes make total sense. Here, she can do the kind of cooking that she walked away from Cedars Social to do.
“Tex-Mex was just not what I signed up for,” Quinones says. “I struggled with it a little bit, I have a family and I have to pay bills, but everyone coming out and being so supportive of me, people I don’t even know congratulating me for sticking to my guns and staying true to my cuisine, that just really kind of pushed me toward a more positive attitude. “
At first, though, Quinones was skeptical of what owner Brady Wood was looking to achieve with José. In fact, she turned down Wood’s offers to lead the kitchen at Jose at least three different times before eventually saying yes. “I thought it was just another restaurant trying to say that they’re doing Mexican food, but really just doing Tex-Mex. I had never set foot in the restaurant, never eaten there,” she says. “We had a four hour conversation, and I told Brady that he was going to really upset people if he changed the menu into more of a focus on modern Mexican. He told me he didn’t care, that this isn’t what he intended with this restaurant when he opened it. He wanted to go down a different path, and I loved that.”
Since taking over the reins at José, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, either. On her first Saturday night at the restaurant, almost every member of her new kitchen staff quit their jobs and walked out the door. As such, Quinones was left to handle the bustling restaurant on her own, accompanied only by a prep cook or two, and she was staring down the prospect of 300 covers that night. She survived, though, with a surprise assist from her brand new husband and Luck chef Daniel Pittman, who stepped in to pinch hit as a dishwasher and man the grill as Quinones managed her kitchen.
She won’t say exactly what the catalyst for that mass exodus was but attributes it to resentment related to a newcomer taking over the kitchen with new rules and new standards. “We were trying to create an environment where there is respect for everyone — for women, for managers, for front-of-house staff, for the dishwasher,” she says. “That change was a little scary for everyone because they were allowed to run the kitchen their way for a long time.” Since, she’s assembled a staff that she gushingly describes as “amazing” and fields several calls a week from local cooks who want a job at José.
In the weeks following those first few rough days, Quinones found her groove. She began revamping the menu to include her most beloved dishes, like delicate, intricately flavored seafood aguachile and the tacos de tacha, a constantly changing “daily tacos” offering that Quinones uses to stretch her culinary creativity. “I didn’t give those dishes a fixed description because I wanted to keep myself busy and on my toes,” she says. “I want to keep guests intrigued, I want them to come in two nights a week and have something completely different even if they only order those two items.”
She’s also started experimenting with mole sauces again, making them from scratch with seeds, nuts, and chiles, and “aging” the sauces by adding in part of the old batch of mole to a new batch. “We never run out, and it creates this sort of aged sauce that tells a different story on day one and 200 days in,” she says. “It’s not like your grandmother’s or your aunt’s or your mom’s, it’s going to be different every time you try it. It’s got a little heat, a little sweetness, you can taste all the seeds and chiles.”
Now that she’s settled in, Quinones is really looking forward to honing in on her cuisine, changing the menu to pair traditional ingredients and techniques with seasonally-available produce. “Mexican food isn’t just about meat and cheese and enchiladas,” she says. “We use fava beans and asparagus, in the winter there’s squash. It’s bright and seasonal.” She’s also working on bringing back the taco truck, which she calls “her baby,” in the coming months, along with working with Wood on creating a tequila room for the restaurant where she can pair dishes with agave-based spirits.
Anastacia Quinones’s arrival at José really couldn’t have been better timed. The city is more excited than ever about Mexican cuisine, Dallas is currently experiencing a boom in restaurants that aren’t exclusively focused on classic Tex-Mex, like Tulum and Jalisco Norte. “At my first pop-up at Las Almas Rotas, I decided I was going to go all out. I made lengua tacos and chicharron quesadillas and menudo,” she says. “We sold out, and it was amazing. Eight years ago, that wouldn’t have happened.”