Abel Gonzales, who has achieved international fame as a repeat winner of the State Fair of Texas' Big Tex fried food award, now has his own restaurant. Called Republic Ranch, it's in soft-opening mode at 3121 Ross Ave., in a space that has seen a number of concepts open and close, such as Salt Lounge, Bungalow Beach Club, Southern Comforts, Ormsby Catering — oh, don't make us go through the list, it's too painful.
This is the first restaurant for Gonzales, but it's really an extension of his longtime catering business.
"I've been doing a lot of this food on the catering side, which has been headquartered in this very kitchen, so I know the space very well," he says. "Some of the previous tenants had DJs and a nightlife component that put them in a rough spot in the neighborhood. When I got the opportunity to take over the space, it seemed like a natural evolution."
Although Gonzales has made a name for himself as the king of kitschy fried foods — like fried butter — he grew up in the restaurant industry, working in the kitchen of his father's restaurant, A.J. Gonzales' Mexican Oven, in the West End. He has the chops, both in the kitchen and front of the house, as a charming and gregarious host.
Rather than fried foods, his menu at Republic Ranch spotlights two of Texas' favorite cuisines. "It's a blending of Mexican food and barbecue," Gonzales says. "It's what I've been doing in my catering work and I know people like it."
He's doing tacos with fillings such as rib-eye, chicken, and pulled pork.
"It's a homey taco place, but we're also doing fried chicken, rib-eye chicken-fried steak, smoked chicken, a beef rib," he says. "We're doing some good brisket. Most Mexican restaurants do their brisket in an oven, but I'm doing a more traditional Texas-style — long, heavy smoke in oak, apple, and hickory. We have a smoker outside. I bought an Old Hickory a little bit over a year ago. That is what kicked off the whole thing. I was doing briskets for events and finally bit the bullet and bought a really nice smoker."
The space has five distinct areas: dining room, banquet room, pool area, arcade, and private tasting room.
"It's a big complex, but we cut it up to make it feel like it's a destination," he says. "You can have dinner, you can lounge by the pool, you can make a night of it."
His real goal is to serve the neighborhood.
"I've been doing a lot of outreach and that area has changed so much," he says. "There's all these new apartments, with people looking for something nearby. We'd love to become their bar. While I was designing this, in the back of my head, it was always a neighborhood bar — someplace you could come out and chill out with friends."