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IN THE KITCHEN

By May 25, 2021May 28th, 2021No Comments

Family roots run deep

By June Naylor
Photos by Ron Jenkins

Father and son didn’t set out to work alongside one another in the restaurant business, but that reality was inevitable. Sharing a passion for good food and hard work, Francisco Islas and Paco Islas can’t imagine doing anything else.

Paco’s Mexican Cuisine made its debut on Fort Worth’s Magnolia Avenue in October 2016. Just four years out of Arlington Heights High School, the eponymous restaurateur — formally named Francisco after his dad — first spent time in property sales. But while a real estate career might mean better hours and no headaches involving fluctuating food costs or broken equipment, Paco’s heart pulled him back to a life he has known since childhood.

Paco Islas with father Francisco: It’s a family affair at Paco’s Mexican Cuisine. The paintings (as well as a mural of Frida Kahlo on an exterior wall) are by local artist and friend Juan Velázquez.

The Molcajete is a shareable special at Paco’s, filled with grilled steak, chicken, chorizo, shrimp, nopales fresco, jalapeno, elote and a spicy ranchero salsa.

Paco’s Mexican Cuisine made its debut on Fort Worth’s Magnolia Avenue in October 2016. Just four years out of Arlington Heights High School, the eponymous restaurateur — formally named Francisco after his dad — first spent time in property sales. But while a real estate career might mean better hours and no headaches involving fluctuating food costs or broken equipment, Paco’s heart pulled him back to a life he has known since childhood.

“I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 13,” he says, remembering the daily commute from school to kitchen. “I’d get out of football practice and head over to Saint-Emilion. One day, they just put me to work.”

Paco began washing dishes, busing tables and, eventually, making salads. The staff at the famed French restaurant in the Cultural District was family — literally. Paco’s dad, mom Bertha, and two uncles worked there. The family has always stuck together, and the restaurant became a second home. Aunts and cousins would join family members in the kitchen to celebrate New Year’s Eve. “My family is superstitious,” Paco says. “If you’re with family at the new year, you’ll be together the rest of the year.”

Francisco came to Texas before Paco was born, landing a job at Saint-Emilion in 1986. He worked as a dishwasher, busboy, food runner and waiter. Francisco didn’t cook at the restaurant, owned by Bernard Tronche, but he studied the food and picked up knowledge and techniques from the chefs and line cooks.

“When he pushed me hard in anything as a kid, he’d say, ‘The reason I push you is so you’ll be ready for the future. You have to step up the pace.’ My work ethic came right from him.”

In 2007, Francisco and Tronche decided to open a casual concept, naming it Paco & John, for their sons. The tiny bistro, in a former convenience store on 8th Avenue, gave Francisco a chance to spread his culinary wings. With his Latino-spiced innovations and Tronche’s formidable experience with his native cuisine, the two created a Mexican-French menu that included mussels with chile notes and enchiladas lavished with sauces influenced by French techniques.

Paco & John lasted till 2014; Paco worked Sundays at his dad’s restaurant during those years, cooking dishes such as chilaquiles and huevos rancheros — but he also studied at other Fort Worth restaurants. At Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, he worked alongside three of his aunts, who still work there. He honed elegant techniques at the now defunct Le Cep, a sleek Parisian restaurant, and at downtown’s Mercury Chophouse.

“Moving through those kitchens, I learned how dishes come together and how plating works,” Paco recalls.

Francisco admits it was heartening to see Paco embark on a real estate career after high school, as he thought his son had a good mind for business. “Honestly, I didn’t think restaurant work was right for him. But then he surprised me.”

Paco works in the compact kitchen of the restaurant on Magnolia, often sharing the space with dad and Bertha, his mom.

Queso fundido with nopales

Paco’s choice to head back into the kitchen reflects his strong admiration for his father. “My dad is the hardest-working person I know; he works fast and works smart,” Paco says. “When he pushed me hard in anything as a kid, he’d say, ‘The reason I push you is so you’ll be ready for the future. You have to step up the pace.’ My work ethic came right from him.”

When a tiny restaurant space came available on Magnolia Avenue in 2016, Paco was ready to bring his dad’s Mexican-French specialties back, along with dishes from Francisco’s hometown of Pachuca, Hidalgo, about 50 miles northeast of Mexico City.

“Magnolia was booming, and we thought a little hole-in-the-wall would be a good place to start,” Paco says. The place started slowly, building a menu of octopus, escargot and trout in delicate sauces with wine pairings. With an investor’s help and the availability of adjacent spaces, expansion came three years later. A new dining room and a bar with updated decor were finished in 2019 — just in time for the pandemic.

During the shutdown, father and son met the moment with takeaway taco and enchilada family packs. But as business returned, they introduced such exotic dishes as bone marrow tacos and tlacoyos, black bean-infused masa in a tomatillo sauce. Birria tacos and tortas draw customers into the wee hours, along with a bar offering tequila, mezcal and specialty cocktails. Their newest business, Islas Tropical, opened next door early this year to serve Mexican-style ice cream and fancy fruit creations like fresas (strawberries) con crema. It’s where you’ll most often find Francisco, who enjoys the laid-back pace.

We go for the Trucha a la Veracruzana, a trout fillet topped with olives, grilled bell pepper and onions, and salsa ranchera.

The fruiteria is the latest addition and is located next to the restaurant.

Catering has expanded the father-son business. And monthly wine pairing dinners showcase local artists, including Juan Velazquez, who painted the murals inside and out. Collaborations with other chefs include the occasional late-night birria-ramen pop-up with friend and Tokyo Cafe chef Kevin Martinez.

Family remains central to success: Paco’s wife, Karen, and sister, Stephanie, along with the grandmother known as “Mama Lucha,” and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, help Paco, Francisco and Bertha run the show. Paco admits that because his name is on the door, he’s often out front talking to guests. “But if I had to choose, I’d just be back in the kitchen.

“Yes, I could have done other things, but it’s 100 percent my dad’s influence that I am here, doing this,” Paco says. “This work, for him, isn’t a job — it’s a dream. And now, I’m the same way.”

THE DETAILS

Paco’s Mexican Cuisine Service begins at 9 a.m. daily with late-night dining available until 2 a.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Don’t be surprised if there’s music and/or dancing, too. 1508 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth, 817-759-9110, facebook.com/pacoscuisine