A Top Chef-fronted Japanese-Mexican restaurant with an eclectic menu is now serving chimichangas. Can it survive in Arlington?
The shrimp snuggled in a white, artfully shaped bowl. Camarones al ajillo, a spin on the Mexican version of the better known Spanish dish, glowed the color of a tropical sunset, the marriage of red and orange and pink. The tequilla-splashed sauce is juicy, with bites bursting thanks to dates and cherries. New to the second iteration of the restaurant’s menu, it’s served with tortillas, not a natural fit to soak up all that sauce, but that’s seemingly the path of Le Kon.
As Milvia Landaverde watched Katsuji Tanabe on Top Chef’s 12th season she thought, “Wow, what a great chef.” And, “on top of that,” she remembers thinking, “he’s Mexican,” just like Landaverde.
A real estate agent, Landaverde—whose restaurant experience includes waiting tables, bartending and working as a prep cook at a steakhouse two decades ago in San Francisco and investing in Casa Tequila in Lorton, though she’s since sold her shares—wanted to open a restaurant in the area and cold-called Tanabe’s Los Angeles restaurant. She spoke with his manager and she flew the chef to Virginia.
Tanabe wouldn’t be an everyday presence, but he designed the menu reflecting his heritage and brand: Mexican-ish food with a Japanese flair (his father is Japanese, his mother is Mexican; he grew up in Mexico before his parents separated and he moved to L.A. with his mom). There’s also the requisite social media clickbait: steak arrived with a “dime bag” of seasoning and tres leches cake came adorned with “unicorn farts,” aka cotton candy dotted with Fruity Pebbles.
The debut menu featured crisp-tender Brussels sprouts, the vegetable of the masses, mingling with crumbles of spicy chorizo in a barely there vanilla-infused buttery sheen. It was a stand-out version of the most overplayed side of the last 10 years. Fat disks of roasted sweet potato, substantial but creamy, sat in a savory soy sauce dusted in crushed pecans. Everyone at the table fought for the last slice. Esquites, charred corn swiped off the cob, tasted salty and cheesy, and conveyed vibrancy but also played the backdrop to whatever else was on the table.
But none of these vegetable dishes are on the menu anymore. Three months after opening, Le Kon changed course.
“I don’t want to say it wasn’t selling,” says chef Walter Elias of the eccentric menu, which featured $55 pig head carnitas. The team not only lowered prices “to get more people in,” he says, but they also trashed the complicated, intriguing, jumbled and at times delicious menu. There was a troubled smoked hamachi ceviche where all the flavors were dialed way up—like choosing the maximum contrast, brightness and saturation when messing with an Instagram photo—so much so that the raw fish languished in the background. Chicken was dry, as was a pork belly. But there were also dishes of clarity: rosy slices of skirt steak, served fajita-style with shishito peppers, accompanied by a brown paper bag of warm tortillas, vibing more steakhouse than Uncle Julio’s. The latter is still on the current, paired down menu.
Elias is nothing if not diplomatic when discussing changes at the restaurant. This is not his first time working for a Top Chef alum, and he’s used to keeping things quiet: he previously cooked under Mike Isabella Concepts’ now-notorious non-disclosure agreements for Kapnos Taverna, Pepita and Yona, where he was an executive sous chef.
He left after MIC’s sexual harassment lawsuit became public knowledge. “That company was going through problems,” says Elias, and “before things got worse for me I [found] a way out.” Isabella’s restaurants have since closed.
Elias’ restaurant career is varied, working at the tiny, celebrated Japanese Izakaya Seki and for international restaurateur Richard Sandoval. At 25, and already with almost a decade in the restaurant industry, Elias knows getting people in the door is what matters.
Elias is the second chef at Le Kon, the first, Patrick Tanyag, left mere weeks after the launch. A figurehead who claims restaurants in Chicago, New York, Las Vegas and Whittier, California, Tabane is also out at Le Kon. Landaverde now dictates the menu to Elias. Another MIC alum, Kent Marquis, is now operations manager.
“In order to stay in competition and not … fade away with this eclectic menu,” says Landaverde, she added Tex-Mex basics to a high-end styled restaurant by DC architecture and design firm CORE. There’s custom Día de Muertos wallpaper; large, airy light fixtures that swoop like a sun hat; and a white wall decorated in layers of corn husks that Landaverde hand-dyed in varying shades of magenta for a glamourous, festive feel.
The previous modern menu, one pairing chicharrones and kale with fermented honey, gave way to enchiladas and chimichangas. “All these restaurants right around [here],” says Elias, “that’s what they’re serving.” Arlington’s restaurant scene these days is full of bars-as-restaurants; it’s not a hotbed of boundary-pushing culinary experimentation.
But in Elias’ hands, these straightforward dishes still display personality. Kicky chorizo is sliced, split open for maximum crevices collecting char marks. The beans are smokier than they have to be. Even taquitos, last seen endlessly rolling in a hot house inside 7-Eleven, are fun here: hand-rolled and stuffed with carnitas. The crispy bits not tucked all the way in are frayed and crispy and the best part.
The end of the meal can be foot-long churros with a trio of sauces or a subtle crema de naranja, creamy, citrusy and a touch sweet. It’s basic, but done well.
Restaurants are notoriously hard to run, to make successful, to last. And with the never-ending rain last year, high rent and property taxes and a menu that didn’t resonate with Arlington, Landavere says, it’s “almost as if all the odds are against us to survive.”
Landaverde bet on Le Kon. “I thought it would be a great income to have to supplement everything else that I was already doing, and I wanted to pay for my children’s college,” she says.
She bet on a Top Chef. But this isn’t the same shiny new show from a decade ago that could instantaneously launch careers. Top Chef doesn’t hold the same cache, especially in this town with Isabella out and Bryan Voltaggio owing $3.1 million for closed restaurants in Baltimore (he already shuttered two different concepts in Ashburn’s One Loudoun).
“I can’t lose everything that I’ve ever worked for—44 years of life—because I had a dream of people loving great, interesting food,” says Landaverde, whose menu is now flush with queso and nachos—and damn good taquitos. “We just decided to go the safe route.” // Le Kon: 3227 Washington Blvd., Arlington; Open for lunch and dinner daily; brunch on the weekends; Appetizers: $9-$12; Entrees: $13-$32