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James Beard Semifinalist Debuts His Take on Mexican Cuisine with Signature Texas Flare

When James Beard nominated chef Ronnie Killen announced plans to open Killen’s TMX at 9330 Broadway in his hometown of Pearland, his intention was to make minimal cosmetic updates to the restaurant space, outfit the kitchen with a wood-burning grill and serve classic Tex-Mex, albeit with a menu heavily influenced by his team’s mastery of barbecue techniques. Along the way, plans changed. During numerous trips south of the border to deepen his understanding of moles, salsas, tortillas and traditional ingredients, the chef gained tremendous respect and appreciation for the regional flavors of Mexico, instantly igniting his culinary creativity. As doors open to Killen’s TMX, guests should expect to be welcomed by the best of both worlds – authentic Mexican and Tex-Mex – in a menu featuring Mexico inspired, Texas fired fare. Fans of Killen’s will find the offerings both familiar and true to the brand, yet unlike any Tex-Mex or Mexican restaurant they’ve encountered.

“I’ve never been so excited to open a restaurant,” says Killen, who graduated top of his class from Le Cordon Bleu and has since built a much-lauded restaurant group that includes Killen’s Barbecue, Killen’s Steakhouse, Killen’s STQ and Killen’s Burgers. “During my travels to Mexico, I fell in love with the cuisine. It reminds me of my French training. The food is all about great product, seasoned simply. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to French food.”

killen's TMX in PearlandTo be sure, the Tex-Mex-meets-barbecue dishes that first debuted at Killen’s Barbecue are accounted for, including smoked brisket enchiladas, wagyu beef fajitas, short rib tamales and ‘cue-laden tacos, quesadillas, nachos and queso. However, it’s Killen’s newer creations that really showcase the manner in which he melds his barbecue finesse with authentic Mexican ingredients and cooking techniques. Pecan-smoked barbacoa short rib paired with housemade adobo transcends both interior Mexican cuisine and Tex-Mex. Achiote marinated grouper is swaddled in banana leaf, cooked over flame and accompanied by refried corn and smoked jalapeño butter. Killen’s signature smoked pork belly shows up fried with crispy skin intact, chicharrones style, and served over a white bean-chayote puree. Moles and salsas are made from scratch; tortillas are formed by hand from corn freshly ground in house.

In addition to meat, the menu’s lighter dishes emphasize Gulf Coast seafood in styles reminiscent of tropical fare served along Mexico’s coasts. Expect vibrant dishes such as Ceviche Ciudad de Mexico with striped bass in coconut-lime leche de tigre, Acapulco-style Campechana in Orange Fanta cocktail sauce and Grilled Whole Snapper with smoked tomato sauce a la Veracruz.

To develop the menu, Killen worked closely with Executive Chef Teddy Lopez of Killen’s STQ, Killen’s Barbecue Pitmaster Manny Torres, Killen’s Director of Culinary Operations Graham Laborde and Chef Louis Lopez, who served as head chef at Killen’s Steakhouse and now leads the Killen’s TMX kitchen.

Killen has also encouraged his culinary staff, 90 percent of whom have Mexican heritage and have worked with Killen’s for years, to contribute familial or regional recipes to feature on the menu. “It’s important to me to honor my kitchen team and their family … I want them to be proud of the dish that has their name on it,” says Killen.

Executive Pastry Chef Samantha Mendoza offers a range of Mexican-inspired desserts, including churros with salted cajeta ice cream and chocolate sauce—her take on a thick Mexican hot chocolate—along with flan cheesecake, chocolate tamales and a custardy version of the much-adored tres leches bread pudding served at Killen’s STQ.

On the bar side, Killen’s beverage director Deanna Killen is shaking things up with margaritas and other craft cocktails highlighting tequila, mezcal, and sotol, Chihuahua’s regional spirit made from the sotol plant and a delicious counterpart to its more widely known agave-based cousins. “It’s been a lot of fun focusing my energy on the agave plant,” she says. “Just like wine grapes, it’s amazing to see the variety.” Anticipate a rotation of featured cocktails, as well as premium tequila flights, Mexican beers, and wines by the glass or bottle.

To pay greater homage to Mexico, initial plans for minimal remodeling were scrapped to completely rework the space, including updating walls, floors, and décor. The once centrally situated bar was relocated near the entrance to create an elevated bar and lounge. It boasts a teal glass tile backsplash, white-washed, hammered-tin siding and a stunning mesquite bar top and is separated by the dining room with a glass partition.

Vibrant Mexican design elements are featured throughout, including Mexican ornaments that hang from ceilings and colorful tapestries adorning tables. Serveware, linens, uniforms and even the carpet were made in Mexico.The 5700 sq. ft. restaurant, warm and inviting in mostly shades of browns, white and deep blue, seats 100 guests in the main dining room, 50 in the bar/lounge area, and another 50 in the private dining room.

Killen’s TMX is currently open for dinner service only, Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 4-10 p.m., and Sunday, 4-9 p.m. A roll out of lunch (featuring more classic Tex-Mex menu items) and weekend brunch will follow. The bar menu will be comprised of Mexican street food: tostadas, street tacos, elotes, quesadillas and more. Reservations are accepted via OpenTable and walk-ins are seated on a first come, first served basis. Valet and self-parking are available.

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Photo credit:  Kimberly Park