Riding the Wave
Misty Villarreal sits down next to me on a long banquette bench in the dining room of the restaurant she and her husband Victor opened during the pandemic. She’s lovely in a blush bridesmaid’s dress with her hair done just-so and her earrings catching the light.
This Saturday night in September is the first Saturday night Misty and Victor have had off since the couple opened their restaurant, La Onda, in June of 2021. They went out, celebrated at a wedding with friends, had some drinks. And now they’re back at the restaurant. Perhaps they’re drawn here automatically, like it’s some sort of existential charging station.
Chef Victor is in a dapper vest with his shirt sleeves casually rolled up. He’s checking in with the man behind the bar and with the lone waitress who have been manning La Onda — Spanish for “the wave” — all night while they’ve been gone. Things, from what I can tell, have gone smoothly this evening. There are still a few scattered patrons finishing up their mezcal cocktails and oysters in the shadowy corners of the refurbished Craftsman bungalow on Race Street. The Villarreals expect things to be up to a certain standard, you can tell, especially now that La Onda is a nationally recognized restaurant.
That’s why things have been so busy lately.
A few weeks before our interview, Misty and Victor got news that you might expect to be delivered by a golden goose with a parchment scroll in his beak: La Onda made Bon Appétit magazine’s list of “Best New Restaurants 2022.” Instead of said gilded waterfowl, however, the Villarreals learned of this honor when a food writer friend in Dallas shared the magazine’s social media post with them by way of congratulations. Sure, the Bon Appétit people had requested some stock photos of La Onda’s Latin-inspired seafood dishes, but the Villarreals hadn’t thought anything of it at the time.
Since then, the literal phones have been ringing off their proverbial hooks, and Misty and Victor are the ones calling everybody back. The Villarreals don’t have silent partners or investors. It’s just the two of them and a small staff running the hottest restaurant in town.
(My husband Gordon and I couldn’t get a reservation for two until 8:30 on this Saturday. We called on Tuesday.)
“Is it always this busy?” I asked during my phone interview with the Villarreals that Tuesday morning, while Misty simultaneously made my reservation and answered all my writerly questions because she’s a rock star and can multitask like that.
“You have no idea,” said Misty. “We were having a fairly slow summer for business, and then it just did a complete 180.”
I could hear Victor in the background catching up on voicemails from people requesting spots at one of the only 12 tables — 32 seats total — inside the La Onda dining room.
The Bon Appétit award was “really unexpected,” Victor tells me once he finishes his calls. “We work really hard and do the best that we can. It’s just such a blessing.”
Misty adds that the award is an affirmation on Victor’s vision and approach and that it “helped to solidify that he’s doing what he’s supposed to do.”
But what is Victor doing that’s gained such notoriety?
Two words: dry aging.
You’ve probably heard of dry aging because you live in Fort Worth, and in Fort Worth, we are well-versed in the ways of dry-aged steaks. But have you ever heard of a dry-aged mahi-mahi or dry-aged octopus? Me neither.
In the Bon Appétit review that accompanied the award, the writer claimed that “seafood magic is happening” at La Onda. If you think about the nature of magic, it’s essentially taking ordinary objects and giving them extraordinary abilities. Dry aging can give a humble fish magical powers, and the Villarreals have bet their careers on it.
Victor, who describes himself as “a process guy,” got the idea for dry aging fish from an Australian chef named Josh Niland, who also seems to be really into processing seafood in a way that debunks the assumption that fresher is better. Japanese sushi chefs learned long ago to age their fish pieces a day or two to bring out the flavor. Josh Nilan extended this idea by aging the whole fish, which is key to preservation and flavor. Victor has followed suit. “[Dry aging] allows me to hold these beautiful fish a lot longer,” he says. “Your average fish only last three to five days. I could age it a week or two, and it only makes it better. The key is keeping it as whole as possible, so you protect the meat.”
Victor has a set of special fish “lockers” he uses to cure the fish in-house and loves to show them to whomever is interested in understanding his method. You can tell he’s proud of them. “My health inspector loves me,” Victor jokes. “I’m the only guy in town who wants to show her my seafood.”
When Gordon and I sit down on the banquette in our cozy corner booth, we order the ceviche and the whole roasted fish of the day. Parrotfish is the featured fish of the day because it’s “the fish that decided to be caught,” Misty says. Their Hawaiian supplier line-catches whatever they can and overnights it to La Onda. I like the idea that the gorgeous fish on my plate, the one I’m about to lovingly wrap in house made corn tortillas and ornament with beautifully fresh pico de gallo, decided it was worth being caught for little old me.
Misty and Victor usually recommend first-time guests enjoy the “Shark-cuterie” board as the quintessential La Onda introductory dish, but they were out of the ingredients by the time Gordon and I arrived. No, it’s not made from shark, but Victor proudly takes credit for the name. (It’s cute, and he knows it.) However, the ceviche of the week is a close second in the must-try category, and Gordon and I found it refreshing and bright, like the color neon orange exploded in our mouths.
The place itself — the atmosphere and the experience the Villarreals want to create for their customers — reflects who they are as people, Misty and Victor say. This boils down (pardon the cooking pun) to a casual-yet-elevated ethos. “Elevated” is the word the two of them frequently use to describe the experience they’re aiming for, but they talk about it like normal people, not like food snobs. “We like fancy food with a casual atmosphere,” says Misty, and when you walk through the cheery yellow door from the casual bustle of Race Street and sit down to order market-price caviar, you believe her.
Most importantly, Misty and Victor want La Onda to be a place where people can come for a community experience. “All of our food is meant to be more shareable,” says Misty. “We want everyone to get a bunch of stuff to share at the table.”
Though they seem to have struck culinary gold, Misty and Victor would probably be the first to admit the seeming overnight success of La Onda has its origins in the years before they ever knew each other. After training in Germany and then cooking under a renowned Michelin-starred chef at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, Victor was already a seasoned (again with the cooking puns!) chef when he came to Fort Worth. Once here, he learned how to work with a wood-fired grill under Marcus Pasley at Clay Pigeon and how to cut and cook fish under Blaine Staniford at Grace.
Misty is a long-time restaurant manager, most recently managing Crockett Hall, the food hall in Crockett Row on West 7th Street. (It closed this past January). It was at Crockett Hall where she and Victor met four years ago; he ran a gourmet pizza kitchen in the Hall. They became friends and talked about opening a restaurant together someday. “Then we started dating. Then we got married,” laughs Misty, as though the whole thing was like bam-bam-bam.
Then the pandemic hit. Then they opened La Onda. Then Bon Appétit happened.
Then Bon Appétit happened.
The lovely little 1918 bungalow in which La Onda is housed is painted a dark cobalt blue with crisp white trim. Converting it from an ice cream parlor to a fish locker/fine dining destination was truly a labor of pandemic love for Misty and Victor, who renovated most of it themselves. They happily found the bungalow to be almost completely turnkey, with mostly cosmetic upgrades required. Misty and Victor signed the lease in July of 2020 and opened their doors in June of 2021. “All of our friends are like ‘Y’all are nuts,’” laughs Misty, who then adds, “Since we weren’t doing anything anyways, we thought it was perfect timing.”
Some people baked bread and binged Tiger King on Netflix during the pandemic. Others opened regionally significant restaurants. To each his own, I guess.
At first, business was booming with the buzz surrounding almost any new restaurant during that hazy Covid summer when vaccines had emboldened patrons to get back out, right before the Delta variant surged in and wreaked havoc. “Up and down, up and down,” is how Misty describes the past year, which she points out is ironic, given what la onda means in Spanish. This past summer was the bottom of the wave with sales numbers shrinking as the temperatures inflated. Misty says Victor was really “down in the dumps” thinking that nobody wanted to eat his food. Then the Bon Appétit article served up a heaping helping of curious gastronomes, and the Villarreals are now riding high on the wave’s crest. What will happen next is anybody’s guess, but Misty and Victor believe in the palates of Fort Worthians.
“There’s a day and night difference from when I started cooking [in this city],” insists Victor. “We still like our barbeque and burgers, and that will never stop. It’s Texas. But there’s more to life than brisket and nachos!”
He says this with a smile. Victor clearly appreciates the legendary Fort Worth food culture with the rest of us who live and dine where the West begins. However, he’s convinced that our taste buds have evolved past the normal clichés about Cowtown, and he and Misty are here to satisfy them. “What we can do is change people’s minds about the other food that they don’t eat.”
The “other food” is the key to distinguishing La Onda as a restaurant over the long haul, but can it be sustained? I asked what it’s like for Misty and Victor to live and work together so closely.
They’re honest, each admitting a tendency towards alpha stubbornness and grin about occasionally butting heads. Ultimately, Misty trusts Victor to “do the back” of the restaurant, while he trusts her to “do the front,” which she does with a definite flair, running the floor and crafting cocktails with names like The Salty Ginger and Siesta Thyme and Let That Mango.
“We both have work-horse mindsets,” says Misty. I note that she and Victor seem to have also implicitly accepted the long hours and juggling required for their blended family of three kids and two dogs. They’re living a full life from sunup to long past sundown.
When they do steal away for a date, Misty and Victor usually go out and eat — drum-roll, please — seafood, typically at a local place to give back to the Fort Worth culinary world. The Villarreals particularly love a place called Asiannights Lao Thai Cuisine & Bar, which Victor describes as “one of the most fantastic” Lao restaurants he’s ever visited. He talks enthusiastically about Asiannights for a few minutes, segueing from their use of adventurous ingredients to their family-run nightclub, transforming from chef into spokesperson in a generous outpouring of praise. As our interview wraps up, I decide that’s what defines both Victor and Misty: their generosity.
To the Villarreals, success is being able to give back to the community as they expand the La Onda brand into a staple of Fort Worth cuisine.
“My food is a little different, but I like that,” says Victor.
So do we, Victor. So do we.