Tex-Mex Architecture, Born in Cincinnati


As of the end of July, Don Pablos, one of my favorite Tex-Mex restaurants, closed its doors at Rookwood Pavilion. It was the last location in Cincinnati, but its architecture lives on in four of the six other remaining locations. At one time there were Don Pablos locations in Symmes Township, Newport, Westchester, and Springdale. The company, founded in Lubbock, Texas, in 1985, filed bankruptcy in 2016, and started closing locations after that. At one time it was the country’s second largest full-service Mexican restaurant chain, with over 120 locations, runner up to Chi-Chi’s, which has since gone out of business.

Mark Redus, the chain’s father, found the old LeBlond Machine Tool Power Plant building at Rookwood in 1994.  To his credit, instead of demolishing the plant, he hired a team of architects to renovate the space. They all agreed its open space had a sort of feel of a Mexican courtyard. They had the room to install a massive central colorfully-tiled fountain inside. With the mass of stringed lights and flags and fountain inside the building, it did indeed have that feel. Its 45 foot tall ceilings and open space made it the perfect place to meet friends for happy hour chips and salsa, fabulous margaritas, and decent Tex-Mex food. It was loud, boisterous, and a fun place to hang and gnosh. I always thought Don Pablos had great salsa and fajitas, which they served with hand-pressed tortillas. The open area allowed also Don Pablos to bring the theatre of hand pressed tortillas area out to the dining room for guests to see. It was all thoughtful architecture that bred great marketing.

The owners of the Don Pablos brand liked the architecture of the Leblond Power Plant in Cincinnati so much that they made that Rookwood location their prototype for new restaurants. I always wondered why the other Don Pablos I went encountered – like the one in Baltimore, Maryland – looked so much like the one in Cincinnati – with its large high ceilings and white fleur-de-lis accents on the red brick exterior.

The distinctive smoke stack at the Rookwood location was not replicated at other sites because of its expense. Although Mark Kiefer, former VP of Construction at Don Pablos, said it would be far too expensive to build the same scale of the Rookwood building from scratch, they maintained the same scale of the windows from the Rookwood location: 12 feet tall and seven feet wide. The red brick exterior mimiced that of old commercial buildings, and in modern strip malls, this thoughtful architecture was appreciated by city officials and residents.

It was especially appreciated in Gastonia, North Carolina, because it reflected the solid appearance of the area’s cotton mills, which were often built with brick to win the confidence of Northern investors.

The Don Pablos brand has been owned by a variety of companies since its inception, but its most recent, was the second to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which they did in 2016.

There are six locations left – two each in Texas and New Jersey, and one each in Delaware and Maryland., four of which have the Rookwood-like architecture.

Unfortunately the preservationist architecture wasn’t enough to save bad management and changes in full service Mexican restaurants, but they should be applauded for their efforts to save and preserve power plant industrial architecture.

The Best Skunk Eggs in Texas

So I’m on a weekend hunt for a goetta cousin – a Tex-Czech sausage called jitronice.     On the trail of German-Czech foods in Central Texas, the kolache is the most prominent of these foods.     The kolache is the less dense, less buttery, more fruit-filled love-child of a croissant and Danish.     On the drive through Central Texas from my business dealings in Dallas, I stopped off at a little town called West, about 20 miles north of Waco, Texas.

West has two big roadside Kolache bakeries – Little Czech Bakery and Slovacek’s – that also serve the savory type – called Koblansnik.      Both sides of the freeway ramp are decorated in murals of couples in Czech traditional costumes dancing.   Kolaches come in all varieties of fruit – apple, cherry, peach, plum and my fave – apricot (merunkove in Czech).   The good ones have fruit filling to the edge of the pastry, and have a nice crunch streusel topping lightly spread over the fruit.    The savory types, koblasnik, look like an oversized dinner roll that are filled typically with anything from Tex-Czech spicy sausage, sauerkraut, pulled pork, or a combination of all.


My first stop was LIttle Czech Bakery, where I picked up an apricot Kolache, and a jalapeno sausage stuffed Koblasnik.    Both were delicious, but I asked one of the workers workers if they carried jitronice sausage.      They have a freezer case full of various other Czech sausages, including Opa Brand Bratwurst that look like our Cincinnati Brats. They were nice enough to point me to Slovacek’s across they highway, saying “They’re from south of here, so they may carry it.”


Slovacek’s is massive.   They’re sign has two pigs in warm embrace with the slogan, “You’ll love our sausage!”   Inside they have a food counter, a massive kolache counter, and a meat counter.      So I made a b-line to the meat counter and asked the young butcher if they had jitronice.  Here’s how the conversation went:

Me:  “Do you have jitronice.”

Butcher:   “No.”

Me “Have you ever heard of it?”

Butcher:  “Of course – make it at home all the time.”

Me:  “Anywhere in West that I can find it?”

Butcher:   “Yes – try Gerik’s.   They are under different food regs than we are.”

So I drove into historic West and found Gerik’s Old Czech Bakery.   The place smells of baking sauerkraut and sausage from their savory koblasniks and the walls are lined photos and artifacts of Czech ancestors.

I ask the girl at the counter if they have jitronice, which unfortunately they don’t.   She direct me to Slovacek’s, which I tell her had directed me to them!.   So I scan their shelves for a savory koblasnik and come upon something called the Skunk Egg, which I had noticed was advertised as the best in Texas on the Pizza House next door, which the Gerik’s also own.


So I asked her what that was.  Counter girl tells me its a koblasnik filled with shredded chicken, onions, jalapenos, cheddar cheese, and bacon.    Wow – with that combination, how can you go wrong?!  Apparently the Skunk Egg started at the Texas state fair and its filling was breaded like a country fried steak and deep fried.   The Geriks serve it Texas fair style at their Pizza House, but make it into a koblasnik  in their bakery next door.   Thinking, “When in West,”  I bought one, which is a meal in itself, about the size of a Frisch’s Big Boy.


A cross section of the massive Texas Skunk Egg Koblasnik

The filling is spicy and absolutely delicious – crunchy with the bacon, gooey with the cheese, and spicy with the shredded smoked chicken and jalapeno.    I was only able to eat about a quarter of it, so wrapped it and put it back in its bag for my trip down I-77 through cattle ranch country to southern Texas.      In the September heat of Central Texas, the remainder of the koblasnik did start smelling quite skunky.

So I didn’t find jitronice for sale commercially in Central Texas, but I did get my introduction to Texas Skunk eggs, a true regional road food joy.

Gooseberry – The Forbidden and Sour Fruit



This weekend I tried gooseberry pie for the first time in my life. I’d heard about gooseberries before. But with delicious choices of apple, cherry, peach or blueberry, who would choose gooseberry? The pie I tasted was from Landes Meats, a country meat market in Phillipsburg, Ohio, northwest of Dayton. I was on my way to a cookout at my brother’s house. The place was packed with folks also doing last minute Labor Day cookout shopping. Landes sold Mennonite made pies and baked goods from a local business called the Bread Basket. The pie shelf was seriously picked over.   Peach was gone, there was no cherry left, and the apples looked a bit janky. So I got the mini blueberry crumble and thought gooseberry would be an interesting experiment for us all to dive into.

Gooseberry is certainly an acquired taste. This would probably be my first and last gooseberry pie. And my family members were all in agreement. To me it was way too sour for a pie. The fruit was small, about the size of a blueberry, but chewier. They tasted like a sour, pickled green grape. There was little going for this small obscure berry, in our collective opinion.

Even though it wasn’t a pleasant taste experience I wondered why I hadn’t seen gooseberry anything in stores or groceries. They’d certainly been around as long as the other more commonly used pie fruits.

So, after a bit of investigation, I found out that gooseberries, and their close cousin the black currant, both members of the Ribes genus, were outlawed by the Federal Government in 1912, because of an outbreak of White Pine Blister Rust. Apparently both gooseberry and currants were proven to be carriers of the Blister Rust. The outbreak put the lucrative lumber industry in serious danger. So the ban prevented planting, cultivation, and propagation of both berries.

Although the federal ban was lifted in 1966, the cultivation of gooseberries and currants has not reached its pre-1912 height. Russia, Poland, and Germany are the largest world producers of currants and gooseberries. It would take a huge industry marketing campaign to bring them back to the forefront as viable fruit berries. And I for one am not supporting bringing back such a sour fruit.