Rodrigo Cárdenas was just 11 years old when his father, Juan Ramón Cárdenas opened Don Artemio in Saltillo, the capital city of the Northeastern Mexican state of Coahuila, in 2007.
His father wanted to honor the simple, ingredient-driven cuisine of his home city, which borders the largest desert in North America, the Chihuahuan desert. And so, at the suggestion of famed Mexican journalist Armando Fuentes Aguirre “Catón,” he named the restaurant after a Saltillo luminary, another prominent Mexican journalist, author, and diplomat from the 1920s: Artemio de Valle Arizpe.
“He was a very important person in Mexican culture, [but] no one ever gave him a prize for what he achieved during his life,” says Rodrigo, who grew up in the restaurant. “A lot of people didn’t know about him.” The restaurant, seeking to correct that, boasts more than 30 original books from the man himself.
Rodrigo started working summers at the restaurant when he was 13 before finally coming in as a kitchen manager in his 20s. He left to pursue an engineering degree in food science at the Monterey Institute of Technology, before attending the Culinary Arts program at the International Culinary Center in New York. After stints at various Daniel Boulud ventures and at Restaurante Nicos in Mexico City, he came back to the family fold in Saltillo. That is, until plans to expand the Don Artemio brand even further up north in Texas arose, and general manager and co-owner Adrián Burciaga offered him the role of executive chef.
“The opportunity to open a family-owned restaurant in another country was the most exciting thing,” says Rodrigo. And to great success: Don Artemio opened in Fort Worth in March 2022 and just a year later, was a finalist for Best New Restaurant at the 2023 James Beard Awards
Billed as the Don Artemio “Mexican Heritage” restaurant, the Fort Worth location isn’t as plugged into Northeastern Mexican cuisine as the original is, as this kitchen prefers to play with local Texan ingredients. “We wanted to be able to do all types of Mexican cuisine honoring the whole country,” says Rodrigo. Still, glimpses and dishes that speak to those Saltillo roots pop up all over the menu, and in the space itself: 20,387 clay bricks made by Saltillo brickmakers were trucked in to adorn the walls of the Cava del Desierto, one of the dining rooms.
Here, Rodrigo Cárdenas goes over five dishes, a mix of Saltillo signatures and Texas exclusives, that you shouldn’t miss on the Fort Worth menu.
1. Nopalitos Fritos
(Fried and tender cactus tacos with bacon and heirloom maiz nixtamal tortillas)
“It’s a very simple and delicious dish, and a signature dish at Don Artemio. It’s just tender cactus fried with bacon. The cactus comes from Milpa Alta from Mexico City. You make a taco out the fried cactus with bacon, and you put the two signature salsas that we have — the red tomato salsa and the green serrano-based salsa.
This dish was created when we were making a menu for a wedding. We wanted to do some garnish to put on top of a Mexican steak, so we shredded the cactus and then we threw it in the fryer. When you fry cactus, it’s a little sour and acidic, so we added the bacon [to] balance the acidity with the fat. And then we came up with the idea to put it in a tortilla and it was fantastic.”
2. Enchiladas Queso Queso
(Homemade artisanal tamarind mole, queso fresco, goat cheese, topped with ajonjoli and crema, with potatoes in a slow-cooked spicy tomato sauce)
“They’re not typical enchiladas, they’re tamarind mole enchiladas made of two different cheeses: goat cheese and queso fresco. We fry them and we put the tamarind mole, which takes us about nine hours to make and has more than 35 ingredients. [For the mole], we make a base of tomato and different types of chiles — we use guajillo, ancho, Morita — some dozen spices, and then we put a chicken stock. But because the enchiladas have no meat or animal protein, we make a little batch of vegetable stock [so the dish can be made vegetarian]. Then, we put the tamarind and simmer it for eight to nine hours.
We serve it with our habanero potatoes. We make a habanero tomato sauce and the balance between the sweet of the mole and then the spicy and acidity of the tomato habanero sauce is really good. We put a little a little bit of cream on top and toasted sesame seeds [the ajonjoli].”
3. Rosewood Ranch New York Wagyu
(14 oz. New York Wagyu dry-aged in-house)
“We have a dry-aging program, and we use this local beef which is fantastic and from a ranch that is here in Texas, Rosewood Ranch. It’s a Texas dry-aged New York Wagyu, and it’s a representation of the Northern carne asada. In the north of Mexico, it is very typical to eat carne asada [any other] day, where you just throw throw a steak in the charcoal. So, we dry-age the New York cut for 14 days, put it in the charcoal oven, and serve it with a salad, roasted onions, and a serrano aioli. The salad is made of watercress, arugula, frisée, garlic oil, and some cilantro and parsley leaves, so it’s a strong salad. It’s very simple, but when you mix everything together, the steak with the salad and the onions with the serrano aioli, it’s really good.”
His favorite side to go with the steak: “The Camembert potato purée is really good. We put confit garlic [in it] and that’s where we get the garlic oil for the salad.”
4. Chilean Sea Bass en Mole Negro
(Seared sea bass, Oaxacan mole negro, sliced seared plantain, tomato herb rice)
“It’s a signature here at Fort Worth — we don’t have anything [like this] in Don Artemio Saltillo. I came up with this idea when we were building the menu and I saw the fantastic produce you can get here in Texas. And then we have a fantastic black mole that we make in-house from scratch as well. It’s more difficult than the tamarind mole because it’s a typical Oaxacan recipe that was given to me by a teacher I had when I was in Mexico City. It has six different techniques to make it good. It takes nine hours as well, and then we grind it in the molino where we [grind] the masa for our tortillas. For the sea bass, it’s very simple: we pan sear it, top it with the mole and a really good tomato rice that we make, and with a fried chip of plantain on top.”
5. Tres Leches del Desierto
(Deconstructed tres leches, ammonite shell ice cream)
“This is a signature dish [in Saltillo]. This dish came from one of the best pastry chefs in Mexico, chef Irving Quiroz — it was a collaboration between him and chef Juan Ramón.
We make a crema with vanilla bean, we make a bread, and then we make a tres leches ice cream in a mold that was a collaboration with the Museo del Desierto that we have here in Saltillo. They made us the mold out of a real fossil that was found millions of years ago in Coahuila de Zaragoza, Mexico. So, that’s why it’s called tres leches del Desierto. We pour the sauce of the three milks over the ice cream and bread tableside, and then there are some berries, and that’s it. It is very delicious.”
Don Artemio is open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for dinner everyday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. (until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and until 8 p.m. on Sundays). Sunday brunch is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.