Photography by Kathy Tran

FOLLOWING A WEEKDAY LUNCH RUSH AT HIS NEWEST RESTAURANT DOCE MESAS on Walnut Hill, esteemed restaurateur Michael “Mico” Rodriguez sits on the back patio chatting with chefs and other staffers. It’s 100 degrees, but the man who founded Mi Cocina 20 years ago is dressed head-to-toe in white, flashing a brilliant smile and looking quite cool, both in the literal and poetic sense.

Inside, several late lunchers spread out among 120 or so white-clothed tables, and line cooks in crisp white uniforms are visible through the open-concept kitchen’s window as they hum behind a neat row of tortilla chips in angular (white) containers.

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When first approached about opening a second Doce Mesas here at The Hill, a busy development just off Central Expressway, Rodriguez says he was skeptical.

He imagined something more intimate, with the neighborhood cafe feel that defined his earlier concepts such as the first Doce Mesas, opened in 2018 on McKinney. But when he finally checked out the space at 9810 N. Central Expy. #600, former home to Red, Hot & Blue BBQ, he felt the potential.

When he toured it, he liked the back patio, which housed a miniature amphitheater fit for, say, acoustic guitarists and flamenco dancers. Behind the stage, and a director’s chair marked “MICO,” hangs a projector screen where he plans to display digital art during the dinner shift. After a pause, Rodriguez agrees he is as much an artist and creative as he is a businessman.

“But isn’t food art? And, even better, it is art that everyone enjoys,” he says.

Guests of Doce Mesas include families with children, loads of couples, dedicated Mi Cocina loyalists and medical personnel from nearby hospitals and doctors offices, he says. There has been a “ tremendous response” to this location, he says.

“Even before we launched, people were anxiously asking ‘when are you going to open?’” It is the perfect location, straddling three Dallas neighborhoods — Lake Highlands, Preston Hollow and East Dallas, he says. “It feels like home,” he says. “You know what I mean by home? Comfort. Home is one of my favorite words and one of the best feelings.”

His uniquely capable staff is to thank for that, he says. And he is on the floor almost every shift, using his finely tuned hospitality senses to intuit diners’ needs. Stellar service is a priority. Rodriguez says our neighborhood has become a gathering place where you go out to a restaurant “and you know you are going to see everyone, your friends, people you know.” People stay in the neighborhood to dine these days, he points out. They don’t want to drive.

Rodriguez has a storied history within the Dallas restaurant environment, having built a bona fide Tex-Mex empire from his small 12-table restaurant in the ’90s, assuming a pivotal role with the MCrowd restaurant group and establishing sundry eateries across our city and its suburbs.

After departing the organization with which he was formerly associated, Rodriguez says he spent some time solo and started imagining this warm and vivid space. He was at the time not sure what would come of these ideas.

“For two years I was putting together images and colors,” he says. “I just didn’t know what I would do with it.”

What came of it is a 120-seat, “intimate and upscale yet accessible” (as he puts it) venue with “a California coastal vibe,” a “breezy indoor-outdoor flow” and a robust menu featuring chilled ceviche replete with fresh fat Gulf shrimp, cheddary charred chile relleno, deep-fried chicken thigh on challah or a crispy salad topped with grilled meat.

Rather than having one chef design the menu, it was a collaborative effort, he says. And he’s not necessarily a fan of everything on it.

“Even if I don’t like it, if the customers do, then I will serve it,” he says.

The menu also features a serious selection of tequila drinks, refreshing frozen cocktails, wine, beer and desserts such as pastel de leche and classic flan.

“Doce Mesas is a return to Mico’s roots,” according to restaurant literature, which goes so far as to note that “this is his best restaurant yet.”