Javelina general manager Christopher Skillern recalls a charmed upbringing in Austin, Texas. “I spent most of my life eating barbecue, breakfast tacos and queso — usually at all-hours at one of Austin's many 24/7 diners,” he says. After finishing film school at UT-Austin, it was one such establishment called 24 Diner where Skillern began overnight busboy shifts — a gig that he balanced with a children’s theatre day job and an internship for filmmaker Terrence Malick. Equipped with a sommelier and impressive food around the clock, it was a diner experience unlike most and one that prompted Skillern to soon pursue the behemoth of restaurant cities: NYC. After several stints across the island he landed at Harding’s NYC, where he helped oversee the beverage program as assistant GM. Most recently he took the management reigns at Javelina, where he has worked diligently with his team to bring the spirited side of Tex-Mex to Gramercy Park. Here we chat with the Tex-Mexpert about the cuisine’s history, the patron knowledge that impresses him, and why the Tijuana Manhattan will always be more than just another drink for him.
BoozeMenus: What did you consider most when creating the drinks list for Javelina?
Christopher Skillern: Nostalgia, first and foremost. Javelina is a greatest hits menu, a tribute album to the favorites of mine, owner Matt Post and all “TexPats” away from home. Then it was about testing recipes to see if there were any ways to improve beloved and well-worn recipes. Increasing the quality of the ingredients is a must in this city and in this neighborhood. Finding the right spirit and brand to pair with each drink is not only a fun project involving many drinks, but also very necessary to finding the perfect balance within the cocktail. Lastly, making sure we're being efficient not only with our spirits and our quality, but also our time. We're Tex-Mex, so we need to be able to make the drinks for our customers fairly quickly!
BM: Any cool stories or inspirations behind any of the drinks that you can share with us?
CS: Most of the cocktails on the list involve memory loss and not memories gained...
BM: Which cocktail proved the most difficult to perfect?
CS: For me it was the frozen margarita base! I haven't had very much experience with margarita machines, having worked almost exclusively with craft cocktails. Finding the right balance is always an exciting challenge, and although the frozen mix took the longest to perfect, it was probably the most fun to put together.
BM: What led to the decision to offer two kinds of margarita -- frozen and on the rocks?
CS: I wanted to showcase tequila in several ways. For the frozen, it is the traditional mix of tequila, fresh lime juice, orange curacao, and so on. For the margarita on the rocks, I wanted to be able to let the tequila shine more prominently, so we're doing a Tommy Margarita, with two ounces tequila, one ounce lime, and one ounce agave. I want guests to call out their favorite tequila and not have it be drowned out by the curacao. Tommy Margaritas make for a cleaner, fresher, and more delicious cocktail.
BM: How did you determine which margarita flavors work better frozen versus on the rocks?
CS: By experimenting, of course! But usually it is pretty simple. Infusions and muddling work great on the rocks, and purees work better with the frozen.
BM: When you hear or read "True Tex-Mex," what's the first thing that comes to mind?
CS: Queso. Chips and salsa hitting the table as soon as you sit down. Cold drinks, hot food, and good company.
BM: What should folks hear about Tex-Mex fare and drink that they might not already know?
CS: The practicality and inventiveness of Tex-Mex fare's beginnings! Most of the Tex-Mex we think of today began as nightly dinners for low-income families, using whatever supplies they had around them. Throw government cheese and backyard grown peppers in a pot and you have queso!
The biggest change I've seen in Tex-Mex recently, especially in regards to the customer base, is a general knowledge of Tequila and agave-based spirits. Before all people cared about were brands they knew, then everybody started talking about 100 percent agave, and now guests come in looking for Mezcal and asking if a Tequila is lowlands or highlands.
BM: What about pairing Tex-Mex dishes with drinks -- what should folks keep in mind?
CS: Always pace yourself! Don't just fill up on chips right away, save yourself for the parrilladas mixtas — mixed grilled platters. If you're going to have a few cocktails, or just a few margaritas, try them with different spirits brands you're unfamiliar with, or try different styles of the same brand — blanco, reposado, anejo. Treat yourself to a really, really good tequila at the end of the meal. Order it neat or with a rocks back and enjoy the sopapillas for dessert.
BM: What has proved to be the most gratifying moment of this process for you, so far?
CS: Interacting with the guests. Especially the native Texans now living in New York who have been starving for this type of food and drink for years. I've had many run-ins with old friends who didn't even know I was involved in this place that have been incredibly redeeming. I dove headfirst into the business because of the immediacy of the reactions. But there is something different about this place. The deep personal connection Texans have to Tex-Mex is on a whole different level.
BM: When's the last time you were inspired in your work by a travel experience?
CS: On one of my last trips to Austin before my father passed away, me, my mother, and my father went out to Contigo, a beautiful restaurant on the east side of town, because my mother had been dying to try it. The server talked her into the Tijuana Manhattan. It was the first time I had ever had one! We ended up drinking them all night on the patio, and from then on, it's always been a cherished favorite of mine.
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos by Michael Tulipan | From Left: