A Horse in the Race 

Tex-Mex Tipsheet: Trigger

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TRIGGER is the new Tex-Mex dugout of Bunk and Bunk Bar co-founder Tommy Habetz, a chef for whom cooks seem to have a lot of respect. He has the anarchic and pleasure-forward abandon with food that you'd expect from a former Mario Batali employee, and stays true to his principles here with a menu of quesadillas, fajitas, tacos, and big drinks.

The restaurant has been open nearly five months, and four trips have produced a mixed bag. Its full potential has yet to be realized—but it's a good start. The place has heart and the best intentions, as shown in details like delicate, intensely beefy smoked brisket, pitch-perfect queso (the proudly down-market dip of American cheese and pico de gallo), handmade flour tortillas, and professional attention to presentation. Its shortcomings are excessive use of fat, untuned salsas and sauces, and expensive but slapdash cocktails.

A lunchtime menu heavy on tacos and quesadillas is a smaller version of the full evening spread. Try the Machaca tacos ($4), two crispy corn shells filled with shredded beef and garnish. The meats at Trigger are uniformly high quality and perfectly cooked, so this one is worth the money. The fried chicken taco with queso and crema ($4) is good, but the balance of chicken to moist ingredients favors the moisture and it's hard to taste the chicken.

The quesadillas ($9-9.50) are a struggle at either hour. The flavor combinations are truly good, but the sheer volume of cheese had me wary after a few bites, and hurting after half the dish. Restraint is hardly a Bunk buzzword—they've made their name by brazenly flouting the concept—but burying the succulent BBQ pork shoulder and hazelnut mole, or the smoked chicken, with its rich undertones of melted mushroom, does the food a disservice. I'd say the best use of the quesadillas is to share one among three or four people, as a starter.

Trigger's queso and chips are a pure pleasure. The warm, creamy dip has three versions: basic ($6), with their well-balanced fresh guacamole ($8), and with guacamole and chopped brisket ($9). Garnished with pickled jalapeños and served with a bottomless basket of hot, salted, freshly fried chips, there is no better starter. The gently smoked chicken wings with a slightly spicy, mostly sweet "cock sauce" ($8 for six) are also worth ordering.

The Texas chopped salad ($9) is a relatively sensible but still generous entrée-sized item on a dinner menu otherwise loaded with heavy hitters. Iceberg lettuce, brisket or lightly smoked chicken, thick cubes of bacon, caramelized onions, perfectly cooked hard boiled egg, fresh avocado, and large nuggets of pungent blue cheese make for a strikingly light, remarkably upscale meal. As so often happens with the expensive proteins in this kind of salad, no one marquee item seemed to run out too soon.

Fajitas for one or two, available as either grilled chicken ($12/$16), hanger steak, or smoked brisket versions ($13/$17), are the best realized of the entrées—the key being that fajitas don't have cheese. The beautifully rosy strips of medium-rare hanger steak were seasoned with a surprisingly restrained hand—some dynamic char and spice would have been welcome, actually—but when stacked in the fresh, tender flour tortillas with the fragrant peppers, guacamole, and tomatillo salsa, it was an excellent package of textures and flavors. The enchiladas (cheese, $12, or chicken, $13), baked in an earthenware dish, have the same fat overload issue as the quesadillas. Both the fajitas and the enchiladas come with creamy, deeply flavored refried beans and a respectable Mexican rice.

A good chile relleno is a hard thing to pull off. Every pepper has a different thickness, which makes roasting times a moving target. While Trigger's version ($9) was beautifully cleaned and presented (this isn't a batter-dipped version), the fruit itself was a ways from being tender enough to cut well.

Tequila rules the roost, and the Trigger margarita ($8), served on the rocks in a pint glass, is efficient and well balanced with fresh lime. More complex cocktails failed. The Maxmillion (tequila, lemon juice, Punt e Mes, St. Germain, $10) was made without Punt e Mes, staunchly defended as properly made, and—thanks to an overdose of St. Germain—tasted like spinster hand soap. The Trigger Negroni (tequila, Campari, sweet and dry vermouth, mole bitters, $9) was thick, lukewarm, and unpleasantly dominated by vermouth.

To give a member of the beloved Bunk family such mixed marks feels like stepping on the pirate flag of a young and dynamic restaurant scene. Last week's confirmed news that Mr. Habetz is back in the kitchen suggests that spring improvements are in the works; given his track record, I'm optimistic that with a slightly expanded menu and renewed attention to detail, his proven brand of hedonism can work here, too.

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Trigger is open Mon-Thurs 11 am-10 pm, Fri 11 am-midnight, Sat 5 pm-midnight, Sun 5-10 pm.

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