Feel the Heat
At Txokos, Chef Henry Salgado uses a giant grill to perfection, turning out masterpieces of Basque cuisine.
There aren’t many restaurants that exist almost solely for one piece of equipment. Pizzerias, of course, couldn’t survive without the pizza oven, and places like The Melting Pot would be nothing without a fondue vessel (called a caquelon, for you crossword buffs).
Life at Txokos, the Basque restaurant at East End Market, revelves around a one-ton, wood-burning, steampunk grilling machine, and the master of the beast is Chef Henry Salgado. He claims that working the cooker is fairly easy, but it takes his unique talent to turn out the remarkable food found here.
Add these two Basque words to your vocabulary: pintxos (pinchos), for small plates, featured prominently on the menu; and txokos (cho-kos), a closed membership cooking club echoed in the semi-secret restaurants in Cuba called paladares.
Salgado (left) wanted to replicate that intimate feeling at Txokos, and I think he has succeeded. The room has a casual feel, with long communal tables near the bar and a row of seats facing that wood-consuming grill. Servers have opinions on beer, wine and food, and they’re usually right, and Salgado and his wife and partner Michele, who is an integral part of the operation, take turns leaving the hectic kitchen to chat with diners.
I was there when the Wood Guy arrived, emptying a pickup truck of split logs and branches into holding bins. Grillworks of Ann Arbor, MI, makes several models of the Grillery, used by legendary chefs such as Jose Andres, Michael Chiarello and James Beard.
“It weighs 1,900 pounds,” Salgado says, “and cost $10 a pound.” The room it is in was meant to be an outdoor patio with a fireplace. By the time building regulations were met, patio had become enclosed dining room, highlighted by the multi-leveled cooker (the grill can be raised and lowered to adjust temperature). It is used for everything from charring whole fish and grilling mushrooms for flatbread to smoking tomatoes for Txokos’ signature salad. That salad, the East End Mercado ($7) adds the earthy tomatoes to greens straight from the garden out front—local produce, local smoke.
I like sitting at the grill, particularly on a cold evening, and watching the primeval magic it creates. Pulpo Gallego ($15), a serving of octopus arm, comes charred and tender, served on slices of potato and draped with caramelized onion and a spicy pepper sauce. Kalimotxo pork belly ($8), named after a traditional Basque drink of cola and red wine, takes a cube of pork through curing, smoking and roasting before drizzling it in a brandy demi glace and cherries for a smoky-sweet-tart flavor.
Paradoxically expensive and very popular is the chuletón ($46), a full bone-in rib eye steak., its deep grilled smell surpassed only by the flavor and enhanced by a serving of porcini-dusted potato wedges. Other fired beauties include the pollo asador ($26), an Argentinian-influenced split chicken with lovely charred vegetables, and the pescado xixario (market price), a showstopper whole fish dashed lightly with sherry vinegar and fried garlic chips.
Txokos Basque Kitchen
Fifth-generation Floridian Salgado traces his family back to Cuba and Spain, before they came to practice the art of cigar-making in Tampa. He wanted to be a pro soccer player, not a pro cook, but found himself as a corporate trainer for Ruby Tuesday before attending culinary school. He then cooked in California, Boca Raton and in the kitchens of legendary chefs Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis.
Txokos is Salgado’s second restaurant, his first being Spanish River Grill in New Smyrna Beach, which opened some 15 years ago. “I wanted a simple, rustic place to get good, local food.’’ he says. ”But once we put real tablecloths on the tables, we became ‘fine dining.’” That kitchen garnered Salgado two James Beard Foundation “Best Chef: South” nominations. But Txokos was always part of the plan. Just not here.
“We looked in California, in Aspen… This was going to be my ‘French Laundry’ (chef Thomas Keller’s famed California restaurant that was called “the best restaurant in the world, period” by Anthony Bourdain). Then the folks at East End Market asked me to come look at the space, and the idea began to form—why not Orlando?
“What we strive for here is rustic, unique flavors, and I think we’re succeeding. I’m happy here,” says Salgado with a smile. “I’d eat here.”
Raise a Glass
Txokos may be the only place in town that specializes in Basque wines. A glass of dry, slightly fizzy txakoli, the “national” drink produced near the Basque coast for centuries, is a good start to a meal, and the deep flavors of tempranillo wines from Basque Rioja Alavesa lend themselves to the rich, charcoaled meats from the Txokos grill.