At Odelay, a new Tex-Mex restaurant on the edge of Park Cities in Dallas, a mural on an interior wall features a bird’s-eye view of Juárez, Mexico, at night. A propeller plane flies above the city. On the bottom left of the painting is a pile of cash; on the bottom right, a handgun. Between the money and the gun are the words: “El Señor de los Cielos,” or “Lord of the Skies.”
Chef-owner Julian Barsotti denies the painting is an homage to Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the onetime leader of the Juárez cartel who died in 1997. But the references are obvious. Carrillo’s nickname was “El Señor de los Cielos,” and the narcotraficante was renowned for daring air deliveries and his large fleet of planes. Barsotti, who’s best known for his Italian restaurants Carbone’s, Nonna, and Fachini, describes the mural as “badass.”
But the art feels more tone-deaf than badass. Recently, cartel violence along the border has increased—in Juárez and Tijuana especially; cartel activity in large interior cities, such as Guadalajara, has flared up; Rafael Caro Quintero, a founder of the Guadalajara cartel, has been captured and faces possible extradition to the U.S.; and the “Boss of Bosses,” drug kingpin Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, has been released from prison. The mural is just one of the cartel references scattered throughout the restaurant, which is designed like a Tex-Mex palace. The problematic decor undermines Odelay’s food, which I found to be a delectable example of our homegrown cuisine.
Barsotti created the dishes to be reminiscent of ones he ate in his childhood at Dallas’s many Tex-Mex restaurants, and sous chef Jesse Sosa executes them well in the kitchen. The brisket chili con carne enchilada is the best I’ve ever tasted. Unlike in iterations I’ve had elsewhere, the gravy topping wasn’t crusty or saturated with enough cumin to wreck taste buds like an un-blindfolded child demolishing a piñata. During my first visit, generous streams of gravy slid from under the beef and over the edges of the enchiladas. When I ordered the dish on a follow-up visit, the chili con carne was more meat than gravy, but it still retained the earthy, piquant, fruity, and salty flavors essential to Mexican food.
The combination platters were impressive overall. I found satisfying, retro flavors in several. The pan-fried tacos, filled with Wagyu, evoked the traditional tacos dorados of Mexico. The green chile enchilada was draped in a light blanket of salsa that was spicy without being a palate killer. According to Barsotti, it might not be fiery enough. “We need to get that green chile hotter,” he told me during a phone interview. Perhaps the salty melted cheese mellowed the spice.
The nachos appetizer was a nod to the original Nacho’s Special, invented by Ignacio Anaya in Piedras Negras, Mexico, in the early 1940s. Each chip (really a bisected crispy tortilla) was smeared with refried beans, melted cheese, and pickled jalapeños. At the center of each was a hillock of pico de gallo and a bantam scoop of guacamole. The flour tortillas, served as a side with butter packets, were a delightful throwback to a bygone era when hostesses plopped soft tortillas on your table instead of the now-ubiquitous chips and salsa.
The menu is also inflected with New Mexican offerings that reflect Barsotti’s time living in Santa Fe. Among those is an uncanny interpretation of the Shed’s green chile burrito. It lacked the otherworldly fire of the New Mexican dish, but the flavors were balanced.
Among the disappointments were the corn tortillas. Some dishes use corn tortillas from La Norteña, a Sinaloan-style tortilleria in Oak Cliff, and others use tortillas made with Maseca corn flour. A fresh corn aroma should have complemented the fillings of the bean and cheese gordita and the ground beef gordita, but the candy-sweet tortilla prevented me from finishing either one. The beef in the tacos al carbon was similarly overpowered by the sweetness of the sails of white onion.
Overall, the meals were executed pretty successfully, but the restaurant’s other poor choices had a souring effect on the overall experience.
The name Odelay is a direct homage to Beck’s breakout album of the same name, which itself is a derivation of the Mexican slang greeting Órale, meaning “What’s up?” It’s a name that reeks of teenage angst.
Each arched section of an interior wall features a separate mural, every one a cheesy re-creation of Tex-Mex-adjacent pop culture references. The first one is a version of Beck’s 1996 album cover, but the leaping Komondor pup is replaced by a piñata. Another is based on a photo from the Dallas Morning News of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and then–University of Miami football coach Jimmy Johnson seated across from each other at Dallas Tex-Mex restaurant Mia’s.
In the private dining room, a neon light installation on the wall reads “Plata o Plomo,” a Colombian Spanish slang phrase meaning “money or bullet.” Here, the art transforms from cheesy to disturbing: the line was a signature death threat of drug lord Pablo Escobar that’s still favored by contemporary Mexican cartel members. “It’s a well-used one in terms of the narcos in Mexico,” Barsotti said.
Our phone interview took place in August, shortly after cartel violence lit up Juárez and Tijuana and residents were warned to stay home after 10 p.m. I asked Barsotti if he had reconsidered how the murals might be interpreted in the wake of the recent news. He claimed to have no knowledge of the events, but he admitted it was awful, adding, “It has been happening for a long, long time.” I recently visited northern Mexico and went through several roadside checkpoints that made U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection lanes look like the open doors of a welcoming church. Police were omnipresent outside of cities like Monterrey and Saltillo. Barsotti’s comments about cartel violence demonstrate a lack of real-life connection to the culture he is referencing—even seemingly celebrating it through his restaurant’s aesthetic choices.
At Odelay, a pink neon sign on the wall facing the restrooms reads “Vaya Con Dios.” This phrase is slightly nuanced. It can be used as a benign farewell, or as the final goodbye uttered by a cartel executioner. It’s difficult to not think of the latter when pairing it with Escobar’s favorite threat. It’s chilling enough to make you forget about the food.