There was a time, and not too long ago, when a simple dish of ceviche made Jorge Levy something of a revolutionary. The dish, which has many geographic interpretations across South America, is traditionally made with whitefish that has been ‘cooked’ by the acidic juice of limes and/or lemons. It was, simply put, a shock to his customers, many of whom had never even heard of this ceviche before.
“I just remember people saying, ‘Ceviche? What? What is that?’” he says with a laugh. “But that’s how we’ve always been – we’ve always tried to be innovative and constantly come out with new items.”
Thirty years later, Ceviche Del Mar can still be found on the menu at Desperados Mexican Restaurant, where Jorge’s passion for innovation and drive to deliver to his customers a unique and enjoyable dining experience still remains, even as he watches his two sons Jake and Michael take the reins of the two locations that Desperados has established.
When the doors first opened in 1976, Levy’s mission with his new restaurant (which he opened with two partners he bought out decades ago) was clear: he would provide authentic Mexican food to Dallas, a place well established in the ways of Tex-Mex, but less familiar with the cuisine he grew up with in Mexico. He would take that fare – using several of his mother’s own recipes – and build on the offerings, providing authentic selections from across Mexico as well as creations from his own hands. From the ceviche to the margaritas and the puffy tacos, Levy and his sons – and many other family members – have established a true Dallas icon by taking great lengths to set itself apart.
“I remember back in the day people used to use Rosa’s limes for margaritas. Remember that? Nasty stuff. Well, we started doing the fresh lime juice and people were going, ‘Wow, you’re crazy!’” Jorge recalls with a laugh.
But Michael is quick to add that it’s not just about any single ingredient or dish – or even just about the food as a whole. Rather, the food is a product of an entire dining culture Desperados seeks to create.
“There are a million different Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants out there, but I think one thing that sets us apart is the atmosphere – a lot of our cooks have been here for 20-plus years, and we have a lot of servers who have been here for five, ten, fifteen, even twenty years. We have so many regulars and loyal customers who come in here because the food’s good and the service is good, but also because they develop relationships with the staff. I think that when people leave here, even brand new customers, we want them to feel that same type of feeling,” he says. “You might be able to go get fajitas or tacos somewhere down the street, but when you come here, you really are introduced to a family feel and you really get to meet a lot of good people. And we want them to say, ‘Wow, not only was that stuff great, but I’d love to go back to see those people!’ And that’s really been a big staple for us; a reason why we’ve maintained the business that we have for so long.”
Levy, who grew up in Monterrey, has used the business to not only support his family and the families of many others, but also Dallas as a whole. If the family atmosphere at Desperados is genuine, then it’s a reflection of Jorge – and his sons. For the past 15 years, he has been the President of the Greenville Avenue Business Association, while his son Jake has served as Vice President. It is an organization that oversees many events, but perhaps best-known for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade – in fact, it was the conversation between Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Jorge that made last year’s parade happen:
“We had a sponsor lined up, and then two months before the parade they told us that they weren’t going to be able to sponsor it. So what are we going to do? Our budget is around ninety-five thousand dollars to put in the parade. And we were short forty. We needed to get other sponsors. So, a customer friend of ours said, ‘Why don’t you email Mark Cuban?’ And so, I emailed him,” Jorge recalls. “I got home and I told my wife, ‘This guy’s not going to reply to me. Can you imagine how many emails he gets?’ He gets bombarded and I’ve only got two little taco stands. But you know what? I emailed him at about 10:30, maybe quarter to 11. He replied in seven minutes. He says, ‘I’m in for the 40 thousand and I’m going to give you guys another 25 thousand for the scholarship fund.’ We normally have done three scholarships. Because of that, this year we gave nine (to low-income students in the DISD).”
In fact, Levy is so involved in the community that he was recently awarded the National Dream Award, which is given annually to someone who immigrated to the United States and then proceeded to use their success to help the community.
“I think that’s been another reason why the restaurant’s been successful because it touches so many different people,” Michael observes.
Desperados may have started as a Mexican restaurant designed to introduce Dallas to a style of cuisine it may not have yet seen, but in the past 35 years, it’s become much more than that. Levy’s restaurant is part of the community, not just the culinary scene, and its purpose has exceeded that of just a restaurant. Nonetheless, his and his sons’ vision for Desperado’s food and service is as focused as ever, and it’s a vision centered on the innovation and welcoming culture they’ve been building for 36 years.
“My gosh, I don’t know how many ideas we have,” Jorge says.”It’s endless what you can do.”