When Chili’s introduced fajitas to mall-goers everywhere, the chain popularized Tex-Mex dishes across the country. The company made sizzling platters of food a dining trend. But the Chili’s success story also ended dispiritedly, the way most chain restaurants’ stories do. The consistency of the food and the quality of the ingredients started to suffer—and the initial, thrilling novelty became unsustainable.
The same could be said of restaurateur Adriano Paganini’s memorable foray into Italian faster food, Pasta Pomodoro. The restaurant opened in 1994 in San Francisco’s Marina district, then multiplied over the next two decades. Pasta Pomodoro’s formula was uncomplicated and, in its first few years, a dependable and affordable lunch or dinner spot.
As the company grew, that dependability gradually became more elusive, until it folded altogether in 2016. Since then, Paganini has created Back of the House, a new and transparently more upscale restaurant group. One of the company’s taglines reads, “24 restaurants, 12 unique concepts.” None of the concepts are aimed at hungry college students on a budget.
Flores, which recently opened in Emeryville, is the third location of a concept featuring “traditional Mexican dishes and flavors.” Before he started working at BOH in 2012 as the culinary director, Alejandro Morgan was the executive chef at Ozumo in San Francisco for four years.
He explained that the biggest difference between being a culinary director and a chef is that as a culinary director you also become a teacher. “You need to be very efficient with the small amount of time you can spend at each restaurant,” he said. “You have to really enjoy teaching and being patient.”
When I spoke with Morgan, who’s also responsible for the menu at Flores, I asked about the company’s plan to avoid the pitfalls of operating a chain restaurant. “The most important thing is the people we work with,” Morgan said. “You have to hire the right people who share a passion for consistency and quality.”
Another common mistake made in the restaurant industry is serving a dish that’s a compromise between what’s popular and what the chef believes in. “I don’t want to sell fajitas at any of our restaurants. I really don’t,” he said. “But maybe there’s something else that can take the place of fajitas that I’m very passionate about.”
At Flores, Morgan’s sopes de frijol ($12) are a delicious alternative to fajitas. Served in mini, deep-fried masa shells, they’re filled with black beans, red onion, jicama, avocado and queso fresco, and topped with ribbons of shredded lettuce.
The chef wanted to make a smaller, more shareable version of sopes for a table of diners. “I love food that you can eat in two or three bites,” he said.
Another entrée Morgan recommends is the whole fish ($32). “We split it in half with two different sauces and grill it,” he said. “I love cooking fish, especially when it’s grilled like that. It looks beautiful. It’s a very special dish because it’s very traditional.”
At the moment, Flores currently cooks trout, but Morgan’s plan is to put huachinango, Mexican red snapper, on the menu when it’s available.
Instead of chips and salsa, Flores delivers a complimentary bowl of chicharrónes to the table upon the guests’ arrival. They’re spicy-good, lighter and less filling than tortilla chips. All of the tortillas, Morgan points out, are made in-house from organic corn. We tried two different tacos ($6.50 each or three for $18). Both the marinated cod and the short rib were served in crispy shells and animated with fresh slaw and salsa, respectively.
The chile relleno ($23) is a stuffed poblano pepper made with mushrooms, kale and queso Oaxaca. The dish didn’t reach the heights of the chile relleno that Mi Casa in Richmond serves, but the sauce alone makes it a comforting dish. In addition to margaritas, cocktails and cerveza, the guava agua fresca ($5) proved a refreshing counterpoint to all of the dishes we tried.
Unique to Flores’ Emeryville location is the addition of a taqueria to the right side of the main entrance. Pedestrians wandering around the Bay Street mall who want food to go can order burritos and tacos at Flores, or they can sit down to eat on the front patio.
Flores, 5614 Bay St., Emeryville. Open Mon-Thu 11:30am to 9pm; Fri 11:30am to 10pm; Sat 11am to 10pm; Sun 11am to 9pm. 510.301.7683. floressf.com/landing-emeryville