A Not So Happy Hour at El Real Tex-Mex

prickly pear margarita.jpg
Prickly pear margarita at El-Real Tex-Mex
I admit, my expectations were high for El Real Tex-Mex. And well they should be. Since it's a joint venture between James Beard nominee Bryan Caswell, and James Beard Award-winning writer and former Houston Press Food Critic Robb Walsh, I expected to be blown away. I expected fireworks on the palate, and a symphony of the senses on my first bite.

Instead, from the moment I stepped in the doors, it was as if I walked into some weird Twilight Zone where everything was off-kilter. It started the moment I walked through the doors around 5 p.m. on a Thursday, when not a single person - not even the hostess at the hostess stand - deigned to greet me.

I made a beeline for the bar, where my girlfriend was waiting for me, and where the lack of attention became more pronounced. My friend and I were the only people sitting there, but the bartender couldn't care less. She came over very grudgingly after I flagged her down - not a hint of a smile or an effort to please in her demeanor - and took the order with the enthusiasm of someone going to a funeral. Her attitude was so bad that I almost got up and walked out, but since I knew the traffic would be bad at that hour, I stayed the course.

el real taco.jpg
Happy Hour crispy tacos, $2 each
It was happy hour, so we each ordered a couple of crispy tacos, along with queso flameado, or flaming cheese, and a prickly pear margarita. When the tacos came out, the meat filling looked like meat looks when it's been sitting around for a long time, kind of curdly and dry. It barely had any flavor and was less than remarkable. I'm not exaggerating when I say that Taco Bell tacos are better.

The queso flameado was well-presented, but after a few bites, it felt like a heavy weight had settled in my stomach, that awful "full feeling" that makes you feel nauseous. The heavy bowling-ball-in-your-stomach feeling stayed with me for several hours afterward.

queso flameado.jpg
Queso Flameado, $5 during happy hour

My friend wanted dessert, so we ordered a tres leches, and it was the only saving grace in the entire meal. The tres leches was perfect in consistency, temperature, texture and flavor. But as for the rest of it? 


The restaurant was basically empty and overstaffed when we arrived. The staff did little but mill around joking with each other for the duration of our meal. A new bartender started her shift around 6 p.m., and though she was somewhat better and more attentive than our first, she too, was less than cheery, asking if we needed anything with an unsmiling, straitlaced matter-of-factness.

tres leches el real.jpg
Tres Leches
By the time we left at around 6:30 p.m., there was a smattering of people in the main dining room, but the bar was still empty, and no wonder. It's been a long time since I've had such a bad experience all-around at a restaurant, especially in Houston. Houstonians are known for being warm and friendly, and I experienced the exact opposite at El Real.

I'd heard mixed reviews from people who've been to El Real, and I realize that my experience may have been a one-off. So for all you folks who are positively outraged reading this, it's for that precise reason that I'm writing about what happened. To have staying power, a restaurant needs to be consistent both in food quality and service. I have no expectations of VIP treatment, but I do expect common courtesy, which, along with the food, I found to be severely lacking. And if I experienced this, I'm certain that others have, too.



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El Real Tex-Mex Cafe

1201 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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lupe tortilla
lupe tortilla

My homemade tortillas are a hit as my contribution to potlucks, delightful as gifts, and have become my signature dish. Everyone would be surprised if they knew how simple and quick they really are to make!

lupe tortilla
lupe tortilla

I cook a lot of Mexican style dinners, and if I dare try to slip in store bought tortillas, well the groans and complaints make me wish I had gone to the small amount of trouble it takes to bake a batch... Because there is no comparison! Tortillas are a simple food..

lupe tortilla
lupe tortilla

The daily bread. There was a time when every cook who was responsible for the family meals, either kneaded bread, whipped up a quick batch of biscuts or rolled out tortillas on a daily basis. Times have changed and breads of all kind are now readily available on the grocery shelf

lupe tortilla
lupe tortilla

The daily bread. There was a time when every cook who was responsible for the family meals, either kneaded bread, whipped up a quick batch of biscuts or rolled out tortillas on a daily basis. Times have changed and breads of all kind are now readily available on the grocery shelf

Dah-veed
Dah-veed

This place looks like an old video rental store turned into a mexican restaurant... Does it look weird to anybody else?

Charley
Charley

I ate there yesterday (6/21) for lunch. The chips and the salsa both somehow had the most disgusting aftertaste. It was like dirty bongwater. I walked by the chip warmer and that same smell was permeating the air. I'm not even sure how you would infuse both the chips and salsa with that bizarre flavor. I went to a tex-mex restaurant and didn't eat chips and salsa! That has never happened before in my life. WTF!

Kimberly Garcia
Kimberly Garcia

my friend went for happy hour when the fire alarm and sprinklers went off. they did not comp. their happy hour and asked if they would like to wait it out. yikes. I decided not to try this place out when there are so many tex-mex places near by with great happy hours.

Vicky Mora
Vicky Mora

I agree..this place is completely disappointing and so overpriced. Went there today and felt so ripped off.  That food is NOT worth a quarter of the price they charge. The salsas were gross, San Antonio would be ashamed they put its name on the puffy tacos, and those beans tasted like they used 10-year-old lard that fell on the floor. One a la cart taco can run you up to $7--excuse me but unless they fly those tacos in from Mexico, there is no reason that 1 ground beef or fajita taco should cost $7 anywhere.

There is nothing "real" about this place. If the owners and cooks are from Texas, they should be ashamed of themselves. The kicker was walking out the door and noticing that they charge $1.00 for 5 packs of the little Mexican chiclets gum. Just goes to show how much this restaurant aims to take advantage of its customers--you can get 5 packs for $0.20 at any other decent Mexican or Tex-Mex place.

Lorri
Lorri

hmmm...i've been twice and have loved the food.  it's like going back to my childhood when people in houston knew how to do cheese enchiladas with chili gravy.  combine that with the tres leches and it's love on a plate.  that said, the service needs significant work.  the first time, our waiter was a bartender (at least that's what he said) who had a good personality but was beyond clueless about waiting tables.  the second time, on memorial day, the place was P.A.C.K.E.D and dramatically understaffed.  too few waitstaff, maybe one busboy, pretty much no managerial oversight making sure the tables were well attended.  for a caswell/walsh joint, the service is beyond disappointing.  they should know better.  hope they get their act together because i'd like to keep eating those enchiladas for a long time.

Sebastian Melmoth
Sebastian Melmoth

Recreating the Tex-Mes food of the 1950s is an interesting exercise for a food writer, but for me, as a diner, it is as pleasurable as recreating the food served in my junior high school cafeteria during the same era, so there is a fundamental problem with the concept from the beginning. Secondly, the decor -- and the 1940's movie playing on the wall when I was there -- are relics of a time when racism for so open in Texas that it was played for laughs. There was, I recall, a Big Nigger Barbeque in Forth Worth, several restaurants in Houston offerd "wop" or "dago" salads, many businesses, such as the Felix restaurant just down the street from El Real, used the sleeping Mexican image as a logo and, of course, no faux-plantation manse was complete without a cast iron negro groom statue on the front lawn. Celebrating that sort of casual racism, even supposedly ironically, makes me a bit queasy. From a restaurant business standpoint, while a simple menu can be standardized, anything approaching fine dining requires a trained, attentive chef in the kitchen and there is only one Caswell overssing four operations around Houston, which is a sure-fire recipe for mediocrity (cf: Indika after Pondicheri opened). The simple and, formerly, very good Little Big's hamburger concept, of late, has gone far downhill in quality since Stella Sola and El Real were added to the roster.

Alfressys
Alfressys

Issue here is three Anglos trying to make food that they have no idea how it should taste likeone a food writer not an operator (all theory) the other two are seafood chefs I think all they see is the fact that they can use their PR to make this happen but they are not delivering on their promise and expectations

Fatty FatBastard
Fatty FatBastard

Good God.  Overreact much?  Someone get this one a binky.

David L
David L

I visted for lunch with a couple of Chowhounds during the opening week. I forget what they had exactly, I know one had a combo plate that had a cheese enchilada. I just had the cheese enchiladas. Some of the BEST I have ever eaten. They CCQ that we started with was also AWESOME. I could eat that like soup. The puffy taco however, was my 1st puffy taco, and I did not care for it. If I remember correctly, their chips were really spot on as well.

Nathan
Nathan

Reading this was funny because I finally got around to trying El Real yesterday (Thursday), not knowing this article had come out. Someone pointed me to it today when I was relaying that I thought it was odd that every employee I passed had welcomed me and asked me how I was doing. Makes sense that they’d be on top of their game the day after a bad review. I had a great experience there yesterday, so hopefully they will be able to maintain the new standard the management is obviously setting for their employees. As for the food, I chose the chicken fajitas. They were fresh, cut thick, juicy, and full of flavor. The pico looked quite fresh too. The queso had been recommended to us, so we tried that and were definitely pleased. Our waiter (Lou, I think?) took care of us and was very personable. My friend liked his cheese enchilada, but wasn’t so crazy about the beef taco. Don’t really remember why. Everything else was fine for him though, and he said he had a great experience. Like I said, this was to be expected the day after a bad review, but I’d definitely go back and see if things have managed to keep up.

H-TOWN
H-TOWN

This is not an "official review" this is a bloggers post about happy hour. El Real has not been reviewed by the Houston Press.

Lmeyer
Lmeyer

i went there on a Sunday afternoon.  Service was average, food was less than average.  very disapointing.

Mary the Foodie
Mary the Foodie

All my experiences at El Real have been fantastic--

The many times I've gone to El Real the service has been spectacular, especially at the bar. The food comes out hot, delicious and often covered in cheese. It's true the crispy happy hour tacos aren't that great. But what do you expect for $2?! It's meant to be drunk-people-food; cheap and okay, so you can spend your money on the delicious margaritas!

And of course the flaming cheese dish left you with a heavy feeling! It's f*cking cheese!

As far as service is concerned- you get better service during peak hours; when everyone's busy-- Not during as shift change. Can you really blame a bartender for being tired at the end of her shift after working 8 hours?

It's amazing this writer is confounded by the simple facts of a restaurant. You'd think she's never been to one.

Simple Fact One: Happy hour food is usually just okay. (but try the happy hour nachos- they're awesome!)Simple Fact Two: Cheese is bad for you and will make you feel icky. But it's cheese and we love it anyways.Simple Fact Three: You get better service during peak hours- not at shift change.

Try El Real again! Go during peak hours. Drink the margaritas! They even have a skinny one. Order nachos if you want happy hour food. Order the famous enchilas #7 if you want to be blown away.

Bruce R
Bruce R

Simple Fact One: Happy hour food should be just as good as anything on the menu.  As a matter of fact, happy hour food is usually the same food on the regular menu but at a discounted price.

Simple Fact Two:  Not all cheese makes you feel sick after you eat it. The photo shows a disturbing amount of what appears to be grease.

Simple Fact 3:  It is utterly absurd to expect patrons of a restaurant to memorize the shift schedule and pattern their visits accordingly.

Cathi
Cathi

it would be nice if an honest review could be expressed without retaliatory personal attacks

allie
allie

I think the concept is great, but just like any new restaurant they have some work to do.  Hopefully the owners will take some of these comments into consideration and re-vamp the menu to suit the tastes of its customers.  If so, I will make many return trips as it is a great location and fun ambience. 

Dtbowles
Dtbowles

$2.00/per taco is hardly a happy hour special.  Taco Bell, who appears to be better, is about $1.00, all day.  Never went here, because my wife, back when we dated, told me the place sucked years ago.

Bruce R
Bruce R

Your wife lied to you.  Taco Bell makes a great crunchy taco.  Other TB favorites includes the enchirito, soft taco, bean burrito, and tostada.

Jackiep
Jackiep

You use Taco Bell as your pricing comparison.  Yikes.  Taco Bell is the chain with the lawsuit pending that that's actually not 100% meat in those beef tacos?  No one's accused El Real of not using real beef here just yet...

Bruce R
Bruce R

Jackiep, there is no pending lawsuit.  How can TB serve 100% beef when the meat is seasoned?  That's like saying that chile is 100% beef--that's impossible.  If El Real doesn't season their beef then maybe that's the root of the problem.

Jackiep
Jackiep

You're right:  The TB lawsuit was filed, then dropped.  This from the coverage: Taco Bell says its taco filling contains 88 percent USDA-inspected beef and the rest is water, spices and a mixture of oats, starch and other ingredients that contribute to what it calls the "quality of its product."  

Franklin
Franklin

All I'm asking from restaurant is to give me consistency and my money's worth. The Taco Al Carbon plate is overpriced for what you get, the a la carte menu is a joke, the margaritas are sometimes good and mostly bad. 

These guys need to step it up. They may be turning a lot of tables but if most people don't really like it afterwards does it really matter?

A good meal will be talked about to a couple of friend while a bad meal will be broadcast to many, many more.

Jay Francis
Jay Francis

Reading these comments here, I can't help thinking, "Are they talking about the same place I've been going to?" Granted, I've been extra fortunate enough to have super-waiter Lou ( what do you say about a guy who not only packages your stuff to go but marks what's in the container and the date for you?) on many occasions but I've never experienced problems with the seating staff or the waitstaff. Ever.

And the food has been very very good. I would put the enchilada dishes, the fajitas or the off-menu burger option against anyone's.

There was a mis-step with the rice the first week of opening but that got fixed pronto. They switched to doing the rice in small batches throughout the day so that it wouldn't gum up or dry out.

And I challenge anyone to find a better prepared frijoles refritos in town.

I have no reservations about dining at El Real or recommending it to friends from out of town.

These comments come from the heart. I do know the people associated with El Real but that in no way affects my remarks here.

Missy
Missy

We also had Lou and he is fantastic! It is worth it to ask for his section.

tinyhands
tinyhands

"I do know the people associated with El Real but that in no way affects my remarks here."

But do they know you and could that have an effect on the food and service you receive? You are, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, a bit of a celebrity yourself.

Dan
Dan

Honesty is always a good thing.  That said, I will have to state that this is pretty much the worst Tex Mex I've had in years.  Stale chips, salty enchiladas, flavorless salsa, greasy hard flour tortillas are just not appetizing to me.  The rice was just horrible.  This is Houston, Tx where good, cheap food is found throughout town, just not at the old Tower Theater!

Kylejack
Kylejack

The burger had some very nice toppings and overall I liked it, but it seemed like a frozen patty and certainly wasn't cooked to my order.  That put a damper on it for me.  When I went in the early days the tamale was terrible, but they seem to have fixed that.  It still seems a little too heavy on the masa, but it tastes good, at least.

I still love the queso.

Barbara G
Barbara G

My experience with my husband and 2 Tex-Mex loving friends was exactly the same.  HORRIBLE service, the salsa had no flavor whatsoever, the food was a huge disappoinment.  Did I mention that the service was the worst EVER!  My friends gave it another try on their own and were as equally disappointed, once again, in the service and food.  We will pass on this restaurant.

Maggie_May
Maggie_May

So, I guess this was Ms Pham's first visit?  

I've eaten at El Real almost every week since the soft opening.  It's very good Traditional Tex Mex--which is rather heavy & often includes lard & velveeta-type cheese.  (There are vegetarian & seafood options.)  The mission of this place hardly includes "fireworks on the palate, and a symphony of the senses on my first bite."  Perhaps somebody with such high expectations ought to have coughed up for more than a cheap happy hour bar snack.  (Is she not a real reviewer, who gets reimbursed for her meals?  Those real reviewers make several visits before pronouncing judgment.)

I've never had the Crispy Tacos--they are a late addition to the menu, added perhaps for those who miss Taco Cabana & regard the San Antonio style tacos as too advanced.  Queso Flameado, well prepared, is pretty heavy; might Ms Pham be lactose intolerant?  (One time, my waitress confessed she had a hard time appreciating the food since she was Asian & could not handle the cheese-heavy options; she had also expected a "chef-driven" restaurant, given the place's pedigree. I suggested a trip to Original Ninfa's to explore other roots of El Real's food; their Tacos al Carbon are a credit to Mama.)

Yesterday, I tried the Tunarita since it was discounted for happy hour. (I find the regular margaritas a bit pricey.)  It was very sweet but not bad; I drank two but, in future, I'll stick to St Arnold's in a chilled mug.

I've never had bad service at El Real.  I've enjoyed most of what I've eaten there & hope they continue to tweak the menu & offer new options. (I still miss Leo's but have an open mind.) 

And I'll give the taco trucks a pass until the next cold front.

doo doo daddy
doo doo daddy

seems as though the Caswell / Walsh supporters are beginning to emerge from the woodwork. again, it boils down to these two talking the talk, but not walking the walk in the case of El Real.

Maggie_May
Maggie_May

I notice that you've contributed quite a few comments about how much you dislike Mr Caswell & Mr Walsh.  But I haven't noticed any comments on your actual experiences eating at at El Real. 

Brittanie Shey
Brittanie Shey

Okay, here is my "bad service" experience. You can judge for yourself if you consider it bad enough or not.

I have been 3 or 4 times. Can't remember. The second-to-most-recent time was about 1:30 or 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon. They were by no means busy, but they weren't dead either. We ate a mediocre meal (this is another topic, but I have been pretty disappointed in their food, expecially for the price point). When it came time for us to go, we requested the check. And then waited. Quite a while.

Our waiter eventually came over and said that their computing system was down and they couldn't add up or print checks. Not just their credit card system, but their entire computing system. But they were working on it and it should be fixed in a few minutes. So we waited some more.

Maybe 10 minutes later he came by again and said it still wasn't fixed and they were still working on it. More waiting. By now it was inching ever closer to the time when we had another commitment to attend

By the third time he came around, we told him we had cash and were willing to just give him however much we owed him, plus a tip, rounded up. You know what we ordered, we said. Just add it up by hand and we'll pay you. He left. A few minutes later a floor manager came by and explained the problem to us — machine is down, it'll be fixed in a few minutes. So we said the same thing to HIM: no problem. Add it up by hand and we'll pay you cash.

A few minutes later ANOTHER manager comes by and tells us the exact same thing. And again, we offer to pay cash because we're ready to get the hell out of there. By now it's been about 30 minutes since we asked for the check, and we've been seen by three different people, none of whom were willing to help us. I'll also add, none of the managers offered us dessert, a drink, a discount or anything while we waited. Not that that's required or anything, but come on. You are totally inconveniencing your customers, who are trying their best to work *with* you.

Finally they got the machines back up and running, printed our check and we paid and left. WTF. Worst customer service experience in a long time.

Incidentally, I can't believe I actually went back after that, but the most recent time, I sat at the bar and had great service and the only good meal I've eaten there.

Hugh Ramsey
Hugh Ramsey

Went last night, for anyone that still cares.  Sat at the bar, service was good.  Queso A+, Marg B-, Fajita nachos B+, Al Carbon B+, Value C-, overall a good experience and I would go back.

Fatty FatBastard
Fatty FatBastard

I'm not sure what people consider "bad service" but again, I've been 7 times so far.  At lunch, brunch, dinner.  On the patio, at the bar, in the dining room.  And this simply isn't the case.  The service is no different than anywhere else I eat, and I dine out at least twice a week.

Hugh Ramsey
Hugh Ramsey

Reef and Stella Sola are 2 of my favorite places, and I miss Walsh's writing.  What I am commenting on is the common theme of bad service.  It is simply inexcusable.  One or two or even five instances commented on, that could be dismissed.  But this cannot.  Fine, I'll go and report back.

Hugh Ramsey
Hugh Ramsey

Miss Taco Cabana?  You cannot be serious.  I'm going to have to go back and look at your other posts.

Maggie_May
Maggie_May

Serious?  Perhaps a bit flippant.  Are you going to search out my other posts in order to pass some sort of judgment on me?  Should I be frightened? 

Oh, you're the guy who's never been to El Real but won't go because of what others have posted.  

f'house cola
f'house cola

Ah, nostalgia, always the strongest flavor, but rarely the best.

Hugh Ramsey
Hugh Ramsey

Food can be somewhat subjective.

There is zero excuse for poor service and enough people here have experienced it, that's inexcusable.

Admission:  I haven't been.  Not in a hurry to go either.

C Rest
C Rest

There's no rush to go and if you don't go you won't be missing out. 

Disappointed at best
Disappointed at best

Our experience two weeks ago was the same as the majority of the comments. Bored, indifferent server, other staff standing around gossiping, extremely salty - yet bland - food, and a cheese enchilada that - I kid you not - we both would have sworn was made with Velveeta. We'd heard wonderful things but will NOT be going back ~ as with the reviewer, the only reason we didn't leave mid-meal was that it was peak traffic time.

csoakley
csoakley

I'm still waiting for the Chingo Bling Combo Platter. All their problems will melt away with the unveiling of the Chingo Bling Combo Platter...

John Davis
John Davis

I've had two good meals there and can't complain about service either. I won't order the prickly pear margarita again, but I love the queso with picadillo. The enchiladas are heavy and filled with processed cheese (as they should be) so they do sit in the pit of your stomach. I think the fajitas are the only thing there that won't give you queso overload.

Maybe part of the issue is the restaurant is going a little too old school. If you weren't alive when places cooked like this, it won't remind you of places you ate at as a kid. I would wager that half of the crowd complaining about it is younger than me. Maybe that's by design, maybe it means the menu needs some tweaks.

Fatty FatBastard
Fatty FatBastard

Try the frito pie as an appetizer with friends.  You will all be blown away.

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