Uptown: 4938 Prytania
Old Metairie: 2037 Metairie Road
After ten years of bringing the first serious Santa Fe-style New Mexican food to New Orleans, it looked as if Vaqueros was going to beat a persistent jinx. Its location on the corner of Prytania and Robert–a spot that looks great for a restaurant, with excellent, long-standing neighbors like the Upperline and La Crepe Nanou–was attracting an enthusiastic regular clientele. But the building seemed to have an insatiable appetite for eating restaurants. In 2005, it swallowed, and Vaqueros became the tenth restaurant to fail there in twenty-five years.
But Vaqueros (Spanish for “cowboy”) was a lot of fun while it lasted. The menu was unique, and executed well enough that only a Santa Fe native would point out the ways in which it wasn’t exactly authentic New Mexican, and which dishes were obviously Tex-Mex or Old Mex. About the flavor and excitement in the cooking there was no question. Blue corn this and that, roasted chile peppers of many varieties, posole (New Mexican grits, on the hoof), and dark, intense sauces ran throughout the menu. Meanwhile, two ladies made flour tortillas from scratch at a grill in the middle of the front dining room.
The ranch was striking, too. Reminiscent of the restaurants of Santa Fe, washed-out shades of pink, rose, mauve, and brown, were interspersed with a lot of wormy-looking wood. An enormous wooden door separated the bar and the back dining room.
You’d begin with tortilla chips–but they were different from the ones you’re used to. For one thing, a large platter of them was $7.75 in 1990s dollars. But they came with five different fresh salsas. A great match to tequila cocktails or the first beer.
The menu continued in this vein. Empanadas made of light cornmeal crust filled with seasoned ground beef with a red-black sauce of house-roasted chiles. A salad topped with crabmeat flautas, crisp tubes with a zippy crab-and-cheese blend inside. Intense chicken soup loaded with red chiles and crispy tortilla chips. Venison and black bean chili con carne: fantastic in flavor and uniqueness.
Those were appetizers. Entrees included corrida de puerco–thick slabs of pork tenderloin marinated mild peppers, grilled, then served with a thick brown sauce tinged with apple and walnut. The Vaqueros filet was a titanic slab of beef with asadero cheese and a sauce of chipotle peppers. Chipotles were almost unknown then, and had to be explained as smoked, semi-dried jalapenos. Pan-seared salmon with a crust of blue corn meal. Grilled tuna with wild fennel.
Tamales were the big kind, stuffed with shredded, braised duck, and sauced with a yellow mole.And a lovely chicken with mole poblano, the chocolate-based kind that is one of my two or three favorite flavors.
For dessert you had flan, of course. Or taco galeta, a sort of taco cookie filled with fresh fruit, chopped mint, and whipped cream.
On Sundays, Vaqueros served an unusual brunch, and one Sunday a month roasted one of the most delicious of south-of-the-border specialties, cabrito. That’s barbecued baby goat, tender and white and juicy.
The original owners were a husband-wife team who also ran the original Figaro Pizzerie on Maple Street. They hired a succession of good chefs, the most talented of whom was their first one: Richard Buchsbaum. He was clearly not Mexican, and an alumnus of Commander’s Palace. I had him figured for opening his own place some day and becoming one of the better chef-owners. Instead, he was affected by the kind of crime for which New Orleans is infamous, and his wife insisted that their family move elsewhere.
But Vaqueros remained good, if not quite as good. It became the center for gourmet Mexican cooking in New Orleans. We held numerous tequila dinners with the Eat Club there, even.
But as the millennium turned over, it was clear that things were tilted downward. In 2004, Vaqueros on Prytania closed. (I seem to recall that the partners had split up.) The chef at the time, a young man by the name of Joseph Griffo, relocated the restaurant to the space on Metairie Road that is now Chateau Du Lac. Griffo spent a few years in Santa Fe and understood the taste. But he almost immediately began revising the menu, and while it was pretty good it wasn’t Vaqueros. At least it wasn’t to my palate. A lot of the food was Tex-Mex: tamales, tacos, chimichangas, chiles rellenos, enchiladas, and a combo platter. The Metairie Vaqueros was also on the growing list of restaurants copying (with its own touches) the char-broiled oysters at Drago’s.
Vaqueros closed in 2005, and not for the usual reason. It didn’t quite make it to the hurricane. As for the restaurant-devouring location on Prytania Street, it is now La Thai Cuisine–restaurant Number Twelve there. So far, it has beaten the jinx by being the best Thai restaurant in town.