First Look at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe

Categories: Restaurant News

elreal1.jpg
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
"We had 1,000 covers on Friday night, then 1,200 covers last night," an exhausted but happy-looking Bill Floyd told me when he stopped by our table at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe on Sunday evening. It was a little past 5 p.m., the doors to the place had just opened, and although the dining room wasn't packed yet, it was quickly becoming a wild rush of wide-eyed diners and scurrying waiters.

Floyd and his partners -- Chef Bryan Caswell and former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh -- were working the room, stopping by each and every table to check on meals and margaritas. Walsh made a brief run by our table with a bowl of shockingly orange salsa in hand. "This is for the people who think the regular salsa is too wimpy," he deadpanned as he dropped it next to the regular house salsa.

I'm not one of the people who finds the salsa at El Real too wimpy, however. "It tastes like it has beef tallow in it!" I marveled to my boyfriend, who -- like me -- is a product of the old-school Tex-Mex places that El Real is [so far, successfully] attempting to emulate. It makes sense, after all, that "Tex-Mex apologist" Walsh should be the one to bring the genre back to its roots after decades of dilution, negligence and incompetence has reduced Tex-Mex to a cuisine that Diana Kennedy considered a bastardization. Walsh told us that El Real roasts all the peppers and tomatoes for the salsa daily and that delightfully deep, meaty flavor comes from a combination of the roasted vegetables and the chipotle peppers in adobo that are added in.

No, it isn't spicy. But neither was old-school Tex-Mex. If you're looking for a place to burn your lips off, don't look to El Real. But if you're looking to burrow into a plate of cheese enchiladas that taste like childhood, look no further.

elreal2.jpg
The margaritas are well-made and solid if not spectacular.
For now, it seems, most of the people that are flocking to El Real -- the restaurant did 500 covers alone last Friday, on its "soft-opening" -- are there for the old-school Tex-Mex. And that's good. I've seen reviews on sites like Yelp and comments on Twitter referencing people's confusion over what they thought would be a more progressive restaurant, perhaps because Bryan Caswell is involved. But El Real was meant to be a throwback from its earliest conception.

"A lot of the menu items will be stuff that hasn't been seen on Tex-Mex menus in a long time," Walsh told me back in November. "We're looking back to the old Gebhardt cookbooks from 1917 and all kinds of old menus." And, of course, to rendered lard.

The kitchen has nearly wiped out Revival Market's supply of lard in the week that it's been open. The lard that El Real renders is added to its refried beans, giving them a viscerally different taste that's deeply animalistic and vaguely feral. Rendered lard tastes like barnyard animal, there's no mistaking it. And, to quote my boyfriend, "It's a taste our palates have become unaccustomed to over the last 20 years." I suspect people will either love or hate the beans upon first taste. But I also suspect that if they give them another try, they'll quickly grow to love that rich, meaty taste.

elreal3.jpg
Tacos al carbon were every bit as good as the cheese enchiladas.
The bland rice, however... Walsh says they're working on it. And aside from wishing that the buttery tacos al carbon came with sides of sour cream, pico and guac, that's my only complaint. The frozen margaritas ($7.25) had a nicely balanced sour-sweet tang that almost tasted like there was a hint of warm vanilla in there somewhere. The guacamole ($4.95 for a very small bowl) was just salty enough, brightened with tomatoes and garlic. The tamale on my Original Dinner plate ($12.95, with two cheese enchiladas) was thickly encased in soft, rich masa and the meat inside parted easily under my fork.

The cheese enchiladas and tacos al carbon ($12.95), however, were on another plane entirely. The chile sauce on the enchiladas with made with chile powder that El Real makes themselves daily, toasting cuminos and making a dusky red sauce that's sweetly earthy. The cheese inside is perfectly melty, perfectly gooey, perfectly...well...cheesy, and with nary a trace of grease around the plate. The meat in the tacos al carbon was cooked to a tender medium with hints of pink in the middle, the steak gently oozing buttery juices into the tortilla wrapped around it and soaking it nearly through. And while we didn't order the famous Felix-inflected queso, there's no escaping the old restaurant's influence: all of the chairs came from Felix, after all.

It's clear that Walsh, Caswell and Floyd have greater expectations for El Real than just a simple Tex-Mex restaurant on Westheimer. From the glass-encased relics of Tex-Mex years gone by (an entire case of which was donated by former EOW blogger Jay Francis) to the patently eye-catching merchandise for sale by the front door, an empire is on its way to being built. And although this is only the first El Real, the No. 7 painted on the side of the building attests to the possibility of six more El Reals cropping up in years to come.

For now, though, it's enough to just watch old Mexican westerns on the movie wall that claims a giant portion of the south side of the building (retaining the Tower Theater aspect was Caswell's idea) and be charmed by the mesquite-grilled meats and cheese-laden enchiladas that are coming out of the busy kitchen. While this El Real may be the first of many, this landmark return to form is blissfully ours for the moment.



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Location Info

El Real Tex-Mex Cafe

1201 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

My Voice Nation Help
71 comments
EM
EM

I ate there this past weekend. I did not have high hopes after reading all of the comments but was pleasantly surprised. The food and service were great. I will definitely go back and have already recommended the place. I eat out a lot and although I'm not a tex-mex expert, I know good food. I was not expecting to be impressed, but I was. That does not happen very often... See you soon El Real!

FJoachim
FJoachim

Ate there Saturday. Wife and I had the puffy tacos/guac/rice. Tried their three different meats. All very good. Will go back.

Patos Tacos
Patos Tacos

I really want to like this place. I am a big fan of Caswell. And Houston needs a great TexMex spot. Unfortunately, this is not it. At least not yet.

Let's start with TexMex 101. You must offer a two course "cold plate/hot plate" combo dinner. El Real does not have it. At least not yet. Second, you have to have rice and beans with a signature taste. Here, the rice has no flavor and the beans are mediocre at best. Third, at these prices, the presentation should look more like a peasant's feast or a last dinner on death row. Think of the ZZ Top's Tres Hombres album photo from Leo's (RIP).

I'll be back in a couple of months to see if the three amigos have gotten their kitchen together. In the meantime, they should go on a few scouting trips. La Mexicana or Villa Arcos to see how a tortilla is properly made. El Patio to see how an enchilada plate should look when it comes out of the broiler. Lupe Tortilla to see how to cook a pot of beans and how to fry a corn tortilla for a puffy taco. And take a look at ZZ Top's Tres Hombres album for a hint on presentation.

I've got my fingers crossed that these guys aren't too proud to rework what is currently coming out of the kitchen.

Hugo0002
Hugo0002

I will say very cool decor. But my pork enchiladas were very bland. Needed seasoning badly. The rest of our group enjoyed their plates, but again off on the seasoning...great margaritas. need bar stools.i wish them well though!

Ella Regal
Ella Regal

Those cheese enchiladas were everything I thought they would be and more. Delicious. Mine were not salty, but were cheesey and the gravy was divine. That pictue up top looks like it has a seed pod on the fork, but it also looks like a combo plate and I had the lunch No. 7. These are my new favorite cheese enchiladas in town. Rice? Is bland! That's the nature of rice. No one complains when the mashed taters are bland. Rice adds texture. My people who had the stacked enchiladas thought they were the best ever. Who ARE you people??

TQro
TQro

I will wait till they get their sea legs just as I'm waiting to visit Ava, Phillipe, etc..With so many Tex-Mex places, my hope is that the quality to price ratio on the 'usual' Tex-Mex dishes is set properly.

Bruce R
Bruce R

Bland rice? Tex-Mex rice is supposed to be bland. If you want your rice to taste good you'd go Persian, Thai, Indian, or even Chinese. Texicans prefer their rice to be pinkish/orange, maybe with succotash tossed in. It improves significantly by dumping salsa on it.

Having said that Chuy's green chile rice is pretty good.

KP
KP

Please tell me there's a combination plate.

Scott218
Scott218

While I admire both Walsh and Caswell, I hardly think this is the place for an objective review. Honestly, I think Robb and Bryan could shit on a plate and Shilcutt would give them a glowing review.

Scott Lynch
Scott Lynch

I was there for their lunch opening, and while not "blown away", it was very good, and I could tell there was potential. The chili on top of my tamale was excellent (as was the tamale itself), the taco al carbon was great, and the pork in the posole was like butter, and there was plenty of it. The beans were distinct and flavorful, the rice (while not heavily seasoned) was cooked to perfection. My only "complaint" is the whole valet thing... I'm just spoiled and prefer parking my own car, but that won't stop me from coming back.

ChristoperHou
ChristoperHou

Spoke to a colleague (chef) who ate here in the last few days and proclaimed it extremely disappointing from a true Tex-Mex standpoint. He grew up in the Valley and found all the food lacking... not authentic at all. Sad to hear - could it be that all the fawning over the celebrities in charge could really taint the truth?

mikhastur
mikhastur

I enjoyed our dinner on the soft opening night. Aside from the service issues [those are to be expected this early in the game], I was disappoint in two things. First, while I loved my paloma, I think that $9 is a little steep for a cocktail based on grapefruit soda. Second, and much more importantly, the tamale was virtually inedible. The chili sauce covering it was delicious, perhaps the best thing on the table. But the masa used for the tamal was tough and plastic like with an unpleasant flavor. I sincerely hope that it will improve, because that is one of my favorite tex-mex dishes. Beyond that, our meal was delicious. and Viva la manteca!

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

I've had a lot of people ask me about El Real this last week. I'm looking forward to checking it out for myself.

Oh, and pretty pics! :)

Matthew
Matthew

went today for lunch. it was very tasty. i remarked that there was a beefy taste to the salsa as well. also, there is a certain acidic tang to it.

Kevin Shalin
Kevin Shalin

Was supposed to go to El Real tonight, but something came up...can't wait to check it out next week!

Hugh Ramsey
Hugh Ramsey

Katherine, yours is the first account I have read or heard that didn't mention some sort of service hiccup. I guess it pays to be known?

Dan
Dan

Pics don't look appetizing. That green in the margarita sure isn't lime juice! Someone needs to get a lesson on tortilla making. I actually tried that plate with a side enchilada. The tortillas were hard by the time the plate was delivered to the table. I asked for a couple that weren't hard the waiter didn't know what that meant. Cheese enchilada was very salty with little substance. Some onions would have helped. Very disappointing experience.

Kyle
Kyle

Hugo, someone else whose opinion I respect said the same thing about the pork enchiladas, which surprised me because mine were awesome. They ate late at night, about 2:30. Maybe some consistency issues to iron out still.

Luvinthang69
Luvinthang69

wow, feel sorry for those in your party stuck with eating just plates, especially since they were underseasoned.

Kyle
Kyle

I just don't buy that the rice has gotta be like that, that this is a Tex Mex tradition. I genuinely look forward to eating the rice at Tex Mex gems like Spanish Village.

I agree wholeheartedly that the No. 7 and Burundi enchiladas are excellent, however. This is Tex Mex done right, and is going to be the arrow in my quiver the next time someone tells me that Tex Mex is lousy. The next time my father flies in from Phoenix he isn't going to know what hit him.

Kyle
Kyle

Go try the rice, man. It's not good, but there is hope.

Kyle
Kyle

Yeah, it's called The Original. Coming soon, the Chingo Bling Combo!

Bruce R
Bruce R

Scott218, would it sweeten the deal if the shit was rolled in homemade tortillas and covered with cheese and chili gravy? And maybe a few jalapenos to give it just the right amount of kick?

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Heh. Colorful. But, yeah, this isn't a review. Just a First Look.

ec
ec

Scott218 I think you hit the nail on the head. While I only know 4 people who've been, they unanimously agreed that the food was bad.

Q.
Q.

For your information, this is not a formal review. This is simply a "first look" at a new restaurant.

I highly doubt shit on a plate from Walsh or Caswell would get a glowing review from anyone unless you are really into that sort of thing.

Kyle
Kyle

Just pull a Robb Walsh. Pull your car in to park at a reserved valet spot and dare the valets to tow you.

Craig
Craig

The Valley has Tex-Mex? No if you ask me.

Matthew
Matthew

if there's one thing i would count on robb walsh to get right is tex-mex authenticity. he did write the book (literally) on it...

Citizenne Smith
Citizenne Smith

Ha - in LA the drinks menu starts at $11...stop complaining!

GL
GL

I love palomas, but damn, what kind of tequila are they using to justify the $9 price tag? And if it's that nice, maybe it's a bit of a waste to mix it with grapefruit soda.

off beat
off beat

I also agree about the tamale. There is nothing good about a dry tamale. The one I had was crisp on the ends.

tee-wee
tee-wee

It's not a huge deal to me, but commenting negatively on the food from soft opening night is a bit presumptuous. Even the first week or so in a new place does not have a lot to do with what it will become once the groove has been achieved, especially in a place doing the monstrous number of covers that el real is. That's not to say the tamale won't suck in two weeks.

Kyle
Kyle

Agree about the tamale.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

While there's obviously no getting around being "known" at a place run by my former coworker, I will say this in El Real's defense: It's only been open a week. The place has been slammed nearly every night. I'm not at all surprised that there have been a few service hiccups. I don't think any rational person would be. The place - like any other newly-opened restaurant - is still getting its sea legs. I think we all need some perspective on that matter.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I'm sorry about the pictures. They were taken with my crappy iPhone. But please feel free to purchase a camera for me to use! That would be excellent!

Wuwu
Wuwu

Wow....just went for lunch, what a joke....the food was bland, they don't allow ANY subs on the lunch specials so these boys have some work to do if they want to make this thing work. Design wise just as bad, they let their reputations think people would flood the doors by they missed bad on how this place looks...very cold inside, little if any decoration almost institutional type feel...won't be going back and the other true Tex Mex establishments should not be concerned!

Bruce R
Bruce R

Luvinthang69, you might want to sober up before posting.

MT
MT

Well the food is not bad. Monday was their first day open and any "reviews" previous to Monday were from their soft opening while they were still formalizing recipes, etc.

mikhastur
mikhastur

tee-wee, I'm hoping that by providing that feedback [which we also did with the owners face to face], that the tamales will improve. I understand the dynamics of opening night. It certainly will not keep me from returning or even from trying the tamal again. That being said, when they're charging you for dinner is hardly "presumptuous" of you to comment negatively when the food is not good.

Aaron
Aaron

I can't imagine eating a tamale that's not made in a family member's kitchen or friend of the family, or whatever. I can't order tamales in restuarants for the reasons described.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

That said, our waiter was perfectly nice and polite. Then again, we were there right after 5 p.m., when it wasn't yet crowded.

Mary
Mary

Katharine, I won't buy you a camera, but I will complement your photos. I think they look great. They are making me hungry!

tee-wee
tee-wee

Indeed, noticed the compliments. Glad you told the owners.

mikhastur
mikhastur

and please notice that I provided plenty of compliments where they were due.

mikhastur
mikhastur

aaron, try Dona Tere's. Their tamales are delicious, although mexican de verdad rather than tex-mex. to be honest, their operation feels almost like a family's kitchen. http://www.houstonpress.com/be...

John Davis
John Davis

Since I'm a nobody, I wouldn't be singled out for special service, but the wait staff did everything right for us. However, we got there before 6 and didn't have to wait for our table. It was pretty chaotic by the time we left.

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