|Photos by Katharine Shilcutt|
"Cheese enchiladas served in chili con carne -- not thin, meatless chili gravy, or authentic enchilada sauce -- are the hallmark of real Tex-Mex, according to 78-year-old Fort Worth sportswriter and Tex-Mex expert Dan Jenkins," as Robb Walsh stated in his July 2008 feature "Temples of Tex-Mex
The gooey, cheesy, occasionally meaty cheese enchiladas served in classic Tex-Mex joints were more often than not the first Mexican (used here interchangeably with "Tex-Mex") that most of us ever ate. And to this day, they remain some of the finest -- albeit not the healthiest -- comfort food around. There are few things better for the soul than a scalding hot plate of cheese and tortillas, accompanied by some savory refried beans, rice and tortilla chips with a bowl of refreshingly spicy salsa. But when cheese enchiladas go bad, they go very bad.
To wit: I once took an extended business trip to Rochester, in upstate New York. The locals there were exceedingly proud of their "Tex-Mex" restaurant, Don Pablo's. It vaguely resembled a Cafe Adobe, except for all the snow falling outside. But that's where the Tex-Mex resemblance ended. The food was the singularly most unpalatable thing I've ever attempted to consume (and I've eaten duck tongues and goose feet), the cheese in the enchiladas simultaneously stringy and gritty and as bland as Elmer's glue.
Luckily, Houston is home to more than a few Tex-Mex places which consistently get cheese enchiladas right, and thank God for that. And this week, we decided to not only investigate cheese enchiladas around town, but to pit two unlikely candidates against one another: a restaurant from our 10 Most Overrated Restaurants list and one from our 10 Most Underrated Restaurants list. The results will probably surprise you...
As it was the No. 5 most underrated restaurant on our list, we had high expectations of Teotihuacan (1511 Airline) from the start. The bright-pink restaurant -- recognizable from space, most likely -- is always pleasantly busy, but never overly so. The crowd inside is roughly the same demographic as its surrounding neighborhood: half blue-collar Hispanic families and workers and half Heights yuppies. Excellent happy hour deals tend to pack the place in the evenings, which becomes as comfortable and warm as your own living room.
While I've had some excellent dishes at Teotihuacan -- tacos al carbon and grilled shrimp parilladas among them -- the cheese enchiladas here are depressingly awful. The enchiladas are absolutely drenched in amber-colored grease that rings the plate like discharge from an untended wound. The enchiladas themselves are composed solely of soggy corn tortillas and cheese -- no other sauce to be found here. Rice and beans have never been Teotihuacan's strong suit, so you can't count on those to save the dish either.
I was able to make it through exactly five bites before pushing the plate away in disgust and returning to the sanctuary of Teotihuacan's cripsy chips and warm red salsa, gulps of lime-laced Tecate eventually washing the grease out of my mouth. This was enchilada fail at its worst.
As our No. 1 overrated restaurant by nearly 3 to 1, Chuy's epitomizes the public's love-hate relationship with kitschy chains. When the original Chuy's was opened in Austin in 1982, it was -- as were many things in Austin at the time -- unintentionally quirky and fun. Times have changed, however, and the Chuy's-brand manufactured whimsy has become grating and aggravating. They sell Ed Hardy shirts at Chuy's now. Chuy's has lost its soul.
All that aside, there are still a few things to love about the old girl (if you can stomach the traffic, endless circling for a parking space and nearly interminable wait at lunch or dinner). The creamy jalapeno salsa is the Tex-Mex equivalent of Ranch dressing on pizza, but it's still delicious. The margaritas are still expertly concocted. And Chuy's still makes some mean cheese enchiladas.
There was no grease to be found on Chuy's classically Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas -- just a thick, meaty sauce of chili con carne atop soft tortillas and gooey cheese. A sprinkling of raw onions on top gave them a bright, hot bite with each mouthful. And while the rice was nothing to write home about, spoonfuls of the slightly chunky refried beans between bites of enchilada was nothing short of heavenly. My dining companion had ordered his veggie enchilada with a tantalizing fried egg draped on top, but that couldn't deter me from plowing through my plate before even trying a bite of his.
Chuy's, easily. It may be overrated, but that doesn't mean some of its dishes don't still hit it out of the park. And, really, any place that serves you a fried egg on top of your enchiladas and has framed pictures of customers' dogs at the bar can't be all bad.