Decatur Bar & Pop-Up Factory couldn't have picked a better first chef-in-residence than Evelyn Garcia. Bubbly, chatty, and passionate about putting her soul into a dinner service, she's like a well-groomed spokesperson who just happens to cook some delectable dishes.
Garcia is one of the stars at Decatur, which opened two weeks ago in the former Beaver's space at 2310 Decatur St. A concept by former Beaver's headliners Adam Brackman and Monica Pope, Decatur has three distinct sides: a bar run by veteran Leslie Krockenberger open six nights a week, a co-working space utilized on Fridays, and a capsule restaurant open Friday and Saturday nights where Garcia works her magic in two family-style tastings at $65 per person. She'll head the kitchen for about four months, after which a new chef will come in to take over. And she has full reign to cook whatever she wants.
"It's my style, what I'm about, what I'm excited about," says Garcia. "And then with the format of family-style, that's the way I like to enjoy food."
A recent menu included massaman curry with beef short rib, poached shrimp and tatsoi, and green mango salad. Many of Garcia's menus will comprise South Asian and Southeast Asian food, as that's encompassed some of her training and what she loves to eat and cook. But literally anything is possible from week to week.
"I'm not trying to do anything traditional," she says. "It's just my take of being from Houston, being Latina, and cooking this food for a couple years already."
You can get a sense of her style through everyday bar bites that include chicken liver pate with an addictive chili jam, a formidable chicken sandwich with tomato chutney on an everything bun, and a rice crisp. That dish, in which a Vietnamese sesame crisp acts as a bowl for a crab, cabbage, and mango salad, is a play on chicharrón preparado, the Mexican snack of pork rind stacked with avocado, cabbage, and tomatoes, among other ingredients. Not only is it a textural masterpiece and very clever, but the salad is intensely fresh, thanks in part to some herbs and a cilantro sauce.
And whether you're at the restaurant on a weekend night or noshing at the bar, you'd better try one of the cocktails. Krockenberger and her team mix up some stunners, including a fresh G&Tini made with Ford's Gin and complemented with an oshibori—or hot towel—that emits a beautiful fragrance after wiping your hands and lifting the glass to your face. Plus there's a frozen take on the classic Bobby Heugel drink Forecast, and an inventive version of a boilermaker. For the boilermakers, chopped French oak stakes from Maker's Mark barrels are vacuum sealed with simple syrup, creating a honey of sorts that goes into a can of Eureka Heights Buckle Bunny. A shot of Maker's is served with it.
With this kind of multi-layered approach, Krockenberger is hoping to constantly groom bartenders who can move into bigger roles at other restaurants and bars. That jibes perfectly with Decatur's ethos for chefs, from the residencies to the pop-ups it plans to host.
"My goal is to take these people and get them as far as they possibly can and arm them so they can go into these other programs," says Krockenberger, adding that she wants to bring the "farm-team" ethos of Beaver's bar back to the forefront.
You can feel Krockenberger's and Garcia's energies when hanging at Decatur, and that can only help other creatives who start visiting. That makes the co-working enterprise (free on Fridays with coffee) rather interesting. Essentially, it's the kind of place a creative can enter early Friday morning and not leave until late at night after finishing the work week with a couple drinks and a quick meal.
To some that sounds crazy. But to be sure, that audience exists, and it now has a place to thrive.