Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Hicks’ approach is simple and elegant, and it fits right in with Cachonga’s unpretentious atmosphere.

Keith Hicks has made Cachonga’s a can’t-miss destination, and his star keeps getting brighter.


In an era of celebrity cooks, a blue-collar guy like Keith Hicks is a welcome anomaly.

Since he took over executive chef duties at Cachonga’s late last year, the 43-year-old food industry vet has single-handedly made Mitch and Mike Musgrove’s Westside restaurant a destination. There’s no other way to explain it — everything else in the warm, intimate Tex-Mex eatery is the same. All that Hicks has done is take the food from OK to excellent.

His skill is readily detectable in the restaurant’s signature dish, the Red Snapper Vera Cruz. Served over red peppers, onions, garlic, olives, and capers, and tossed with linguini, spinach, and saffron oil, Hicks’ version may sound like a trainwreck waiting to happen, but it somehow manages to sing like a choir — every ingredient shines. One of the chef’s most winning attributes is his predilection for simplicity over fussiness.

Yes, he may take his sweet time over the flame, but he’s serious about the consistency of his jalapeño cheese grits, and the pork, he insists, must — must — slide off the bone with ease. A new selection of entrées and appetizers that Hicks has been working on since his arrival will include exotic dishes, like wild boar enchiladas, quail legs, and sweet potato crème brûlée. Expect a new menu over the next couple of months.

Up until his arrival, Cachonga’s had been just getting by. Or perhaps, getting desperate: Over the course of a couple of months not too long ago, the menu had undergone numerous revisions, and the name chosen to replace that of the previous business, Goose West, didn’t last very long. (Anyone remember Banderas on the Boulevard?)

Hicks has helped give the place some much-needed stability. He’s not the poster boy for fine dining like a few other local chefs (Lanny Lancarte, Tim Love, Grady Spears). But Hicks is, indeed, a personality. Built like a cannonball and bald, with a long salt-and-pepper beard, the chef is quick with a smile yet talks slowly in a hep cat’s breezy rasp. He looks and acts more like a Lower Eastside jazz trumpeter than a Fort Worth cook.

“Keith should be marketing himself more; he’s got the personality of a celebrity chef,” said restaurateur Blade Haddock, who was Hicks’ boss for two years at Chop House. “On Food Network, it’s all about personality. Look at Bobby Flay. He doesn’t do Southwestern [cuisine] any justice, but he’s got personality — and he’s got eight different shows.”

Hicks arrived at Cachonga’s from Gunsmoke Grill and Saloon on Cockrell Avenue, just off West Berry Street. He joined around the time of the steak house’s grand opening two years ago and left this past November. The reason, he said, was “creative differences.”

“You grow out of places,” Hicks said. “Sometimes it has to do with getting tired of the kitchen. The same smells come in. ... I’m like a racehorse that needs some alfalfa every now and then.”

Despite (or maybe because of) the fact that Hicks trained in Grandma’s kitchen and not in a professional, scholarly setting, he got to train alongside a few seasoned pros, including Wolfgang Puck and Chris Ward. His resumé includes stints at some of Cowtown’s top dining establishments. In addition to Chop House and Gunsmoke, Hicks has worked at Mambo’s Cantina and a restaurant at the Worthington Hotel. Celebrity status isn’t a primary concern, he said. “You just keep trying to do those things right,” Hicks said. “Hopefully, you send out the right waves.”

Since he started cooking professionally a dozen years ago, Hicks has worked kitchens on both coasts, gotten married, and today has a 15-year-old son, Jameel. Hicks and his wife moved to the Metroplex about five years ago to be closer to her family in Dallas.

After leaving Gunsmoke he received an offer to return to the Chop House, but Cachonga’s looked like the place that would give him the best opportunity to do his “thing.” “What’s cool about here is I can touch so many [more] people,” Hicks said, referring specifically to Cachonga’s neighborhood-friendly prices. “Here, you don’t have to worry about [how you’re going to pay] the telephone bill after you eat.”

“Optimist” could be the best way to describe him, according to sources close to Cachonga’s kitchen. “I have worked with a lot of chefs, and Keith doesn’t play favorites. He’s just genuine,” said Denise Harrington, Cachonga’s manager. “He has a really positive influence [on the staff]. I think he changes everybody he works with.”

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