Our server told my guest and me the chef recommended that we eat our Hawaiian shrimp appetizer with the shells on. After all, the outer layer of the amply-sized crustaceans — served here three to a plate, topped with a velvety, piquant butter sauce and served with cotton candy grapes and diced cucumber — packs easily as much flavor as the meat within. While most diners wouldn’t hesitate to scarf down a soft-shell crab like a drunk devouring a Jack in the Box taco at 3 a.m., the shrimp’s shell still holds a place of mystery in the minds of even the most adventurous diners.
The app augured well for the rest of our evening at La Onda, the month-old Latin-inspired seafood- and cocktail-focused eatery on Race Street, opened by the noted husband-and-wife team of Chef Victor Villarreal and wife Misty Villarreal, a well-known mixologist.
The dish’s sauce delivered a refined balance of spicy and rich, just subtle enough to complement, not overpower, the tender, sweet shrimp. The brittle-but-crunchy shell trapped pools of the sauce and added a delicate touch of brine. Every morsel that followed was just as daring, ambitious, artfully prepared, and delicious.
Named after an avant-garde art movement that grew out of the 1960s counterculture in Mexico, La Onda is just as much the chef’s mission statement as it is a name. The entire bill of fare represents the kind of cuisine locals rave about when they travel abroad to the world’s foremost food cities. The small menu requires a certain level of trust that the chef knows his food better than you. As Villarreal told our table during a post-entree visit, he aspires to create the kind of food chefs enjoy when they’re trying to impress other chefs. Absent are the easy choices to assuage your food-coward aunt or bratty tween. No, the kitchen can’t just make chicken fingers.
The Villarreals are refugees of the Food Hall at Crocket Row’s Version 1.0, where Chef Victor manned the spatula at scratch-pizza critical darling Abe Froman’s of Fort Worth and Misty was the GM and bar manager for the entire food hall. When the hall’s owners decided to reimagine the concept, the couple saw it as an opportunity to hit the eject button and follow their own vision. Victor has been working in area kitchens for decades and recently helmed dearly departed Sera Dining & Wine. His resume also includes stints at local powerhouse kitchens like Clay Pigeon, Grace, and The Mansion at Turtle Creek.
La Onda’s setting is a converted 1940s bungalow, and the feel is as homey and quaint as the exterior suggests. The modest-sized dining room houses about a dozen tables, and there’s a small bar that also serves as a doorway to the kitchen. Treated wood and exposed brick add to the authenticity of the vibe.
Based on the menu alone, you might don your highest heels or swankiest blazer before jet-setting to La Onda. You can dress up if you want, but you’ll likely stand out in the relaxed, unpretentious environs. On a recent visit, more guests were decked out in shorts and graphic tees than collared shirts.
The ingredients are sourced from the same purveyors that supply some of the best-known, pedigreed restaurants in the state. La Onda is the only place in Fort Worth you can sample escargot caviar, for example. The kitchen serves a sublimely fresh ceviche of the week, a selection of often-hard-to-obtain oysters, and a rotating choice of dry-aged fish. Most of the seafood is wild-caught. The one steak offering on the day we visited was a prime dry-aged bone-in ribeye the size of a Lincoln Town Car that could easily feed four barrel-chested firefighters or one stoned teenager.
Traditionally meat-focused chef obsessions — dry aging — are here applied to seafood. The process intensifies the flavor of the flesh, while careful butchering techniques and tightly controlled conditions keep the fish from rotting.
If all of this sounds like Robin Leach’s fever dream (if you’re younger than 35, google him), rest assured that, while you can still drop some serious coin here, everything is priced well below what you’d expect to pay for the superb quality of the ingredients. An $85 caviar flight may sound pricey, but you’d pay triple that amount at many places around the country for the same product.
Having conquered the shrimp, we ordered a dozen of the superbly flavorful Wellfleet oysters, served with a peppery matcha as a mignonette — which the briny, creamy, mildly sweet East Coast mollusks didn’t need.
The house “Sharkcuterie” board is like a greatest hits album for the kitchen’s small bites. Lucious Blue Point oysters had been dunked in chile oil and jarred for slathering on fresh-tasting bread. Silken house-cured sushi-grade salmon gravlax practically dissolved on the tongue and was accompanied by the usual accoutrements: mustard, capers, and so on. In the center of the plate sat a smattering of caviar, which included the earthy, sage-like escargot, plus versions of buttery paddlefish, salmon, and smoked trout.
The star among stars on our evening was the weekly offering of ceviche — a dry-aged Hawaiian opah served whole but that flaked at the touch of a fork. The fish was topped with pineapple, serrano peppers, and the house matcha. The opah was bathed in a marinade that delivered chile heat and citrus acidity in precisely calibrated doses. This was a virtuosic dish.
The dry-aged Alaskan salmon, served skin-on, sat atop a bed of black pearl rice with a tongue-searing veggie mix of okra and squash alongside a piquant sauce. The fish’s texture was fatty, but its flavor was pure and lean.
Clams bobbing in a spicy broth of chorizo, epazote, and mezcal were served with bread for sopping up the delicious mix.
There was no dessert available that evening, but there are bar options for sauternes and other sweet boozy treats if you’re so inclined.
La Onda is that rare animal — at least in this town — that challenges your perceptions as much as it does your palate. Every bite was delicious and unfailingly interesting. The dining room isn’t meant to turn three times over every night. It’s the sort of place you linger, swirling another glass of tempranillo or an artfully designed cocktail while contemplating your dinner with an academic’s curiosity.
The Villarreals could have gone down the cash-strewn path to Margaritaville, but they chose instead to cook (and mix drinks) the way they like it — full of adventure.
La Onda, 2905 Race St, FW. 11am-10pm Tue-Sat. All major credit cards accepted. 817-607-8605.
Hawaiian softshell shrimp MRKT
Oysters (a dozen) $36
Scottish salmon $30
Sharkcuterie board $28