first taste

Don’t Call It Tex-Mex

At Yellow Rose in the East Village, the vegan queso rivals the beef chili.

Outside dining at Yellow Rose. Photo: Scott Heins for New York Magazine
Outside dining at Yellow Rose. Photo: Scott Heins for New York Magazine

Whether you’re eating a samosa in Jackson Heights or ingesting a bowl of noodles in one of the city’s many Chinatowns, dining out in New York has always provided the illusion of travel to faraway lands. Even now, when we’re all living in our tiny, ever-narrowing COVID orbits, I would argue that this is still true. Just in the past few weeks, I’ve been teleported, briefly, to the duck houses of northern China (the “mandarin duck” at Milu) and the pizza temples of Naples (the classic margherita at Ribalta), so when news arrived, not long ago, of a newly opened Texan canteen called Yellow Rose on lower Third Avenue, I put on my wool cap and two layers of foul-weather gear and ambled over to the East Village to have a look.

Yellow Rose is the brainchild of Dave and Krystiana Rizo, an accomplished culinary couple who have been working the pop-up and restaurant circuits (Superiority Burger, Emmy Squared) for several years, ever since moving north from their native San Antonio. Neither is a fan of the dreaded “Tex-Mex” label, but with its bags of boutique stone-ground grits and yellow cornmeal for sale up front, a snug and now eerily deserted bar in the back, and pictures of Texas barbecues hung crookedly on the wall, the place has the look of a homesick Texan’s slightly elevated idea of what an old-fashioned border-country honky-tonk should be.

The same goes for the simple, stripped-down, bar-style menu, which features a mix of old and new, including three kinds of homestyle tacos (chicken, beef, bean), elaborate $15 big-city cocktails (“for two” versions come in clear-plastic, nutcracker-style bottles), and a strange, curiously un-goopy vegan version of queso dip (it’s made with cashews, among other unexpected things), which this non-Texan is fairly sure has never been seen in any of the traditional Tex-Mex establishments around San Antonio.

The faintly sweet, cashew-heavy queso drew rave reviews from the assembled non-vegan Yankees at our windblown little outdoor table, which was set with a jar of yellow flowers under a slightly tattered white tent on the shoulder of Third Avenue. It was topped with rings of pickled jalapeño and a dusting of black pepper and served with very good housemade corn tortilla chips, alongside our tubes of tinfoil-wrapped tacos stacked on a plastic orange tray.

“These monsters should warm us up,” one of the shivering Yankees said, as we unfurled the first toasty batch of chicken tacos, which Chef Rizo constructs with handmade flour tortillas rolled around generous spoonfuls of shredded chicken mingled with salsa verde. The beef in the beef tacos was cut in chunks, instead of the usual ground chuck, and simmered in a rich dried-chile gravy, and the pintos in the traditional San Antonio-style refried-bean-and-cheese tacos were from Rancho Gordo, for all of you heirloom-bean lovers who obsess about such things these days.

The dish that had us crying for more at Yellow Rose, however, was the spicy, richly flavored beef chili, which Chef Rizo has been refining and tinkering with for years. It contained tender beef chunks in its depths and tasted of cumin, cilantro, and the faintest whiff of campfire coffee, and once we’d settled our bill, I took an extra helping, as a little taste of southern Texas, back to my own family, in a bag filled in the traditional way with plastic spoons, a stack of napkins, and several packets of saltines.

*This article appears in the November 23, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Don’t Call Yellow Rose Tex-Mex