One look at the chicharron and waffle at Jose and Sons and youll understand why the dish has quickly won a cult-like following. A Latino-accented variation on the trendy soul food classic chicken and waffles, the dish substitutes nuggets of fried pork belly for the chicken, and piles them atop a large corn masa waffle drizzled with agave-Sriracha sauce.
Lets see chicken and waffles, pork belly, Sriracha, agave nectar. Unless Ive missed something, thats four food trends on a single plate.
Were talking the mother lode of pork belly, crunchy-chewy morsels packed in so closely together that you can barely see the waffle underneath. And thats before you add the crowning touch: a couple of soft-boiled eggs, which you break over the top and watch try not to drool as supple yolk and silky white melt into the savory-sweet pastiche.
Its every bit as good as it sounds, but its a lot of rich food. I was only able to polish off a little over half, and Im a professional hired belly. I wasnt surprised when Charlie Ibarra later told me that the chicharron and waffle has become something of a local Man v. Food challenge (referring to the bet you cant eat the whole thing thesis of the Travel Channel series).
More to the point, the dish is representative of the Mexican-Southern fusion concept at Jose and Sons, which opened in early September in downtown Raleighs Warehouse District. The restaurant is the latest venture of the Ibarra family, whose restaurant empire began in 1993 with the opening of El Rodeo on Hillsborough Street, and has since grown to include several (mostly Tex-Mex) eateries.
The family closed Jibarra, their flagship contemporary Mexican restaurant and tequila bar, to make way for Jose and Sons. The new restaurants menu is a celebration of their culinary heritage: the immigrant cuisine of patriarch Jose, melded with the Southern fare eagerly adopted by sons Joel, Hector and Charlie (youngest sibling Jesse Ibarra, a student at N.C. State who waits tables on weekends, is the newest addition to the team).
Intentionally or not, with the opening of Jose and Sons the Ibarras have also created a gastronomic symbol for the cultural melting pot that our region is increasingly becoming.
And what a tasty symbol it is, serving up delightful surprises at every turn. Pimento cheese tostones, for one, an appetizer currently offered on executive chef Oscar Diazs seasonally changing menu. Diaz, who previously honed his inventive skills at Jibarra, tops the traditional fried plantain patties with house-made pimento cheese, crunchy bacon and chopped scallions. Its an addictive combination, and a natural companion for one of bar manager Cary Walters craft cocktails. The Mole! Fashioned, say, a deceptively easy-sipping elixir of rye whisky, Patron Citronage, piloncillo syrup and house-made mole bitters.
Mole the sauce, not the bitters gets a fresh interpretation in an entree offering of mole lamb chops. Tweaking the classic recipe of a mole negro while remaining true to the spirit of the sauce, the chef incorporates roasted butternut squash, sage and chocolate from Videri, the restaurants artisanal chocolatier neighbor in the historic Depot Building. The result is a sauce whose rich, complex notes serve as a well-matched foil for the chops. Roasted Brussels sprouts, fried yuca and slivers of citrus-pickled onion round out the showcase of fall flavors.
Not a fan of lamb? How about chicken- and tomatillo-filled tamales, steamed not in the traditional corn husks but in eminently more edible collard leaves? Theyre served over a mild tomato salsa, with black beans on the side. Oh, and more collards, sautéed with butter, lime juice and a touch of habanero salsa to give them a kick that any Southerner who grew up splashing his greens with a little pepper vinegar will appreciate.
Think youve tried every possible version of shrimp and grits? You can look forward to a new variation on the theme with every menu change at Jose and Sons. This Carolina boy, for one, was charmed by the fine, creamy texture of masa grits that were paired with cascabel chile-blackened shrimp on the inaugural menu. That combination has since been replaced by garlic-sautéed shrimp and stone ground grits enriched with Chihuahua cheese, roasted corn and rosemary.
One thing thats sure to remain consistent is the kitchens attention to the little details that elevate a meal: the carefully braided husk on Mexican-style grilled corn on the cob (rolled in mayonnaise, lime juice, chili powder and crumbled queso fresco); the charming presentation of the seasonal fish and scallop ceviche served in a French canning jar; the dainty scalloped edges of miniature house-made tostadas that are served with the ceviche; the freshly made guacamole first-rate in its own right, with an equally rewarding market-inspired variation (recently, with roasted poblanos and house-made goat cheese) also available.
The owners gave the Jibarra dining room a makeover, with a new look to match the menu. At once vibrant and rustic, Jose and Sons sets the mood with a hodgepodge of folk art and bric-a-brac ranging from Day of the Dead paintings to vintage bicycles. The exposed beams and high warehouse ceiling remain, as does the large octagonal bar in the middle of the room (though bourbon bottles have replaced some of the tequila bottles in what was formerly billed as a tequila tower).
Painted around the base of the bar, in large block capital letters, are the words HECHO EN RALEIGH. I cant think of a more suitable motto for a restaurant that embodies the best of our rapidly evolving local dining scene.