Cochineal evolves its model, launching weekday tapas menu

Photo by Johnny Autry, food styling by Charlotte Autry, photo courtesy of Garden & Gun. Cochineal’s new weeknight tapas menu boasts a beef and smoked bacon meatball dish, one of Chef Alexandra Gates’ favorite offerings.

MARFA — Chef Alexandra Gates has launched a new cuisine at her restaurant Cochineal, now serving a menu of small-bite Spanish tapas on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in Marfa. 

Gates, a James Beard award nominee, has owned Cochineal since 2017, and in that time, she’s had to evolve her business many times over in order to survive.

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, Gates closed her doors, made sure her employees were able to collect unemployment and then, she got to work. In part, she relied on survival instincts in order to switch gears, she said.

“We were closed and I felt like my staff was taken care of,” she said. “I kind of had a lot of time on my hands, so I played a lot with food.” That play led to Gates, her husband and her daughter running to-go only food out of the restaurant as the pandemic swept the country. “The pandemic forcibly slowed me down,” she said, and gave her an opportunity to spend time with her family before her daughter left for college.

When COVID numbers declined last fall, Gates evolved again, moving her restaurant to outdoor-only service with minimal, spaced out tables and a pre-fixe menu, where customers receive a predetermined menu and number of courses at a set price. “It’s gone over really well,” Gates said, and the restaurant will keep that dining style for the weekends.

But local faces were mostly coming into Cochineal only for special occasions, marking birthdays, anniversaries or engagements, “which I love,” Gates said, “but I wanted to do something a little more accessible.” Meanwhile, some of her employees were eager to take on more hours of work than the restaurant could offer with its pared down hours.

Prior to her venture of taking over Cochineal in Marfa, Gates ran La Tasca, a Spanish tapas food truck in Austin. Pulling recipes from her past, the restaurateur is posing her restaurant’s latest evolution as “high-brow weekends, low-brow during the week,” she said. “But it’s not really low-brow food. It’s still Cochineal, it’s still our food.”

Tapas, Spanish small-bite foods, are on the menu, ranging from cheese plates and olives to empanadas and meatballs, each served a la carte. “My upbringing is Swiss, so there’s the influence of French, Italian and German,” Gates said of the menu, and of course, her use of local ingredients lends a Texas flair to the plates. “I always like the meatballs, because I can play around with them.” Though traditionally cooked in wine, sometimes Gates will add a Texas whiskey into the almond broth, or grind smoked bacon into Texas akaushi beef or wild boar.

Whether guests want to go out for a cocktail and have a snack or make a meal from the menu, Gates hopes it can make the restaurant more accessible to Marfa residents. “If you just want to come in and have a little snack and a glass of wine or sangria, that’s affordable,” she said, “and if you want to have a full dinner, you can piece it together however you like.”

At their soft opening, the restaurant had a line snaking out the front gate and quickly sold out of food, something Gates didn’t see coming. “I don’t know if it’s going to be like this forever, but I feel like the pandemic made everybody ask, ‘Okay, now what do we do?’” For now, the restaurant will offer its tapas menu Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.