First Look at Don Julio's

Categories: Restaurant News

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Credit where it's due: The margaritas are very good.
As often as I feel exhilarated with the state of the food scene in Houston, I feel exasperated just as frequently. Such is life in our city, and you take the good with the bad.

And such is life at Don Julio's, the suburban import Tex-Mex restaurant that just opened last week at Westheimer and Taft, where Tony Vallone's Caffe Bello was unable to break the curse of the La Strada that was there before it. Despite those two restaurants failing miserably in the same locations, early indications are that Don Julio's just might succeed.

I am both happy and sad about this. Happy because it thrilled me to see so many neighborhood residents -- it was mostly Gay Date Night and My Two Dads night this past Friday -- enjoying a meal in a space that was so rarely well-occupied when it was Caffe Bello. And sad because, while Don Julio's is otherwise lovely and inviting, the food is Tex-Mex on mute.

Every dish we ordered that night, with the sole exception of the Texas Mud (more on that in a second), was unremittingly bland and boring. And although the margaritas were good, Houston should expect -- if not demand -- more in its Tex-Mex restaurants. How can we stand for such a dumbing-down of one of our core cuisines?

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Even the rice is bland here. It pains me just to look at it, all white and empty.
I don't have many positive things to say about Don Julio's food, so I'll be brief. The pork tamal's masa was overly thick, its pork in rough cubes instead of shredded. The beef taco had no flavor at all, neither shell nor meat. The cheese enchiladas tasted like the ones I used to make in college, all bags of shredded cheese and Walmart-brand tortillas and a can of cheap hot sauce. The chile gravy didn't show any signs meat, let alone of cumin, that most basic of pulses when you're looking for signs of life in Tex-Mex food that seems DOA.

And yet everywhere we looked, people around us were happily inhaling their plates of food and Los Tios-style two-plate dinners. While I might bemoan the loss of those bold, heady flavors in our definitive regional cuisine, who am I to deny these people the enjoyment of what they deem a good meal, whether I find it subjectively "good" or not?

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It's hard not to like the beachy, inviting decor, as kitschy as it is.
In that sense, it's frustratingly difficult to dislike Don Julio's. It's clearly filling a niche, even after only a week, of providing simple food in a beguilingly semi-upscale setting. It's inoffensive and an easy place to pass the time over chips and salsa and margaritas on the rocks.

And that Texas Mud, a most unattractively named dish, ended up surprising my dining companion and me despite all the other dismal food. Refried black beans, pico de gallo, garlic-laced guacamole, white queso and taco meat all somehow blended together into a dip that I had never had before in my life, yet somehow reminded me of childhood. It was composed of the kind of foods you grow up eating in Texas before your tastebuds mature and develop into discerning little individuals. It gave a flickering, fleeting sense of home.

Maybe that's why Don Julio's other three locations in the far-out suburbs are always packed, and maybe that's why this one will be too. And I suppose that's fine with me; not every restaurant can be exhilarating. Sometimes, it seems, folks just settle.



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Location Info

Don Julio's Mexican Restaurant - CLOSED

322 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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49 comments
Guest
Guest

That was the most bogus of reviews ever!

GoeghanM
GoeghanM

I've eaten some good tex-mex, at joints like Spanish Village, Molina's, Tampico, Doneraki, Tacos del Julio and I think Don Julio's, at least the one here in Montrose, compares pretty well.

I am, however, all in favor of cumin and heat and oily cheese and chorizo. But overall, after chowing on some very good enchilladas mole and beef fajitas, I'm into to trying the place again. Bonus: white queso that was interesting.

Sherie
Sherie

We live within walking distance from Don Julio's and have been happy to just have the space filled.  I think a large vacant building there makes the entire area look a bit derelict.  We gave Caffe Bello multiple tries and had way too few hits for the many, many misses and stopped going well before it closed.

With that being said, a couple of our neighbors accompanied hubs and I to an early (7pm) dinner on Saturday.  We sat upstairs and I too was surprised at how well the renovation had been done.  Luckily, Don Julio's corrected Bello's mistake and added restroom facilities on the second floor, along with an area to go outside, if you're so inclined.  Additionally, the crowd was much as you described it....a lot of the neighborhood folk.  I attribute that to the fact that they're only in their soft opening stage and you pretty much had to drive by to even know that they have opened.

The signature margarita was much too sweet for me, but they quickly whisked it away and brought me a skinny version and it was perfect.  The red salsa was lacking any sort of heat, I think I actually said, "meh" when I took a bite.  I had the fajitas, husband had chili rellenos and friends had "snapper" (really?!?!?! for $11??) and a combo platter.  The verdict:  rellenos was a bit bland, fajitas were just fine, "snapper" was great and combo was fine too.  HOWEVER, we did make a discovery that pushed all of our meals, save the fish, over the edge.  Hubs requested hot sauce because we like our Tex Mex w/ a bit of a kick.  They don't have any commercial sauces, but brought back an incredible house make chipotle sauce.  That stuff was incredible smeared on fajitas, drizzled on tacos or added to the chili relleno.  It was a bit sweet at the start, but with a signature chipotle finish and a surprising kick at the end.  

We too thought the service was top notch--and that means a lot to us.  It was one of the reasons we stopped going to Caffe Bello-I can put up with a lot, but mediocre or surly service is not one of those things.  They were most accomodating to replace my drink, bring hot sauce and just provide all around great service.  The manager checked with us multiple times and even packaged up some of the chipotle sauce to take home w/ the leftover fajitas. 

Overall, is it my favorite Tex Mex meal?  Nope.  Not even close.  There are fantastic restaurants all over Houston that do it much (MUCH) better, BUT, for me, they're not within walking distance.  The good margaritas, great service and really reasonable prices will probably make it a fairly regular destination based on simple proximity-I can only eat pizza or Indian fusion so many times.   When I want to drive and have fantastic Mexican food, I'll head for La Guadelapana or the like. 

Clumsy Plumsy
Clumsy Plumsy

Being just bland enough to appeal to everyone... it's the American way! Can't blame them for going down the same path that's worked for sit-down restaurant chains and local "institutions" (like Barnaby's Cafe) for years.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Something else worth a mention: The service at Don Julio's was fantastic. That right there will ensure a LOT of repeat business, even while the food is just so-so.

scar of hope
scar of hope

sidebar: the beef fajita tacos at the drive-thru W Grill on Washington are the biz-omb

Fentermann
Fentermann

I wish I could take the margaritas from Don Julios and combine them with the food from El Real. Then we'd have a complete mexican restaurant rather than two halves. I find the food decent at El Real but the margaritas lacking. At Don Julios the food was lacking while the margaritas were good. Go figure. 

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

Folks out here in the 'burbs are underwhelmed with the Don Julio's that opened in Spring.  There are just too many options around - why settle for bad Tex-Mex?

Vonronstadt
Vonronstadt

Going in, I wasn't expecting much, but I left very satisfied. Maybe it was the margaritas, but I feel Don Julio's has confidence to do things differently than the pack. The rice, for instance, which you found bland, I really liked; it's done the cuban style, simple white rice, cooked in salt water and not sure what else, but it's a nice break from the cliched yellow 'saffron' stuff.

The bacon wrapped shrimp weren't huge, but they were flavorful and cooked perfectly. Good chile relleno, with an airy light batter.

I'll go again. Especially when things cool off and I can watch the sunset from the second floor patio. 

Jack Tyler
Jack Tyler

Any you, Katharine, have saved me a trip.

Knockinonheavensdoor
Knockinonheavensdoor

I was very pleasantly surprised by Don Julio's.Like you said, the margaritas were great, but also the food was much better than it had to be. In fact, I thought the food overall was more appealing than El Real down the street.

The charro beans were enriched with sausage and pork and could have been eaten as soup. Stuffed jalapenos were gigantic, and packed heat, to complement a white cheese and shrimp filling. The mole was outstanding, slightly bitter and perfectly balanced with hints of cinnamon and cocoa.

The fajitas marinade is black pepper based instead of the usual citrus-sweet treatment, with nice results, and you have the option of notching-up the heat level with chipotle....which I highly recommend. Hell, I even thought the salsa damned good.

Looking forward to trying more there, as it's in my hood.

Kylejack
Kylejack

I probably shouldn't even ask because I'm never in my life going to go there, but what were the prices like, ITL or OTL?

Jack Tyler
Jack Tyler

In my opinion, the use of the white cheese on several dishes amost amounts to a "signature" touch.  I liked it. Especially on the Texas Mud and enchiladas. You mentioned Spanish Village... I haven't eaten there since the late 50's and early 60's.  They used to have a "private club" upstairs, too, during the days before liquor-by-the-drink.

Deguerra42
Deguerra42

John, save your clever wisdom until you've actually tried it. Then you'll sound even smarter.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

The chips were good. Nice and thin, which I really appreciate in a restaurant. The salsas were unremarkable. Red was too sweet, green was a blander version of the stuff at Ninfa's and Teotihuacan.

Donna451
Donna451

I preferred the food at Don Julio---maybe I just lucked out when ordering. 

Dan
Dan

Was way better than my trip to El Real down the street

Fenugreek
Fenugreek

The location in Spring you mention is in my neighborhood, and is packed. I guess being 'underwhelmed' doesn't keep people from returning. 

PietraS
PietraS

Folks were really underwhelmed by Caffe Bello, so I'm happy that we in Montrose recognized that and now have Don Julio's to try.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Point taken on the rice, although it's difficult for me to get behind a Cuban rice preparation at a Tex-Mex restaurant. Especially when "Mexican" rice is so damn good when cooked  correctly.

Connaught34
Connaught34

ok, Jack, but you're missing some good food, good drink....and best yet, they offer discounts for Seniors. 

Cheddarflem
Cheddarflem

Along the lines of better than it has to be: they make both flour and corn tortillas in-house

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Perhaps I just didn't try the correct dishes, then. I was sorely disappointed in the meat that was in our enchiladas al carbon -- it was mealy and flavorless. But I'm willing to go back for another round.  :)

U2knowme
U2knowme

Cheap, this place reminds me of Panchos! NASTY NASTY! Can believe they are still open on montrose!

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I have the receipt right in front of me, as it happens:

Texas Mud $8Puerto Vallarta dinner (two cheese enchiladas, pork tamale, beef taco, guacamole and queso) $11Enchiladas al carbon $11Margarita $9.50

Clumsy Plumsy
Clumsy Plumsy

I have tried it; I would never comment otherwise. The key words are "just bland enough" - bland, as in I was similarly unimpressed with the rice and margs; the rest we sampled fared no better than scores of other average Tex-Mex joints around town.

Bland, as in so many other restaurants (Tex-Mex and otherwise) serve more interesting food than what's on offer here, including Cafe Bello before it.

Save your clever retort until you actually know what's going on. Then you'll sound... well, you know the rest.

Emdie_99
Emdie_99

Did you actually try any of the food?

KegelExer
KegelExer

Wow, I've eaten there twice and both times there was not even a hint of sweetness in the red salsa. It was on the tart side, slight burn and a faily fine consistency. Let's hope that your version of the salsa doesn't really exist, or it was a fluke.

TQro
TQro

True!And what is this "yellow 'saffron' stuff" that Vonronstadt speaks of?  We've never pretended to use saffron or make our rice look or taste like saffron or even look yellow in color.

EphraimYC
EphraimYC

Don't Mexicans cook their rice in a variety of ways? Why does 'Mexican' rice have to be the tired Tex-Mex version that's been boring people for years?

Jack Tyler
Jack Tyler

I've been getting discounts for seniors for a few years. However, unlike other old farts like me, I don't require bland food. 

dietbudget
dietbudget

That seems expensive for my budget.

Lynda Flores
Lynda Flores

For me the chips and salsa at a Tex-Mex is the indication of how my meal will be... I will even forgive the meal if the chips and salsa are excellent.  Example:  El Patio!  

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Hmm. My dining companion pointed out the sweetness too, so I don't think it was just me. Maybe it was a fluke batch after all.

TQro
TQro

Tex-Mex/Northern-Border Mexican rice is not yellow so why are you suggesting it is?  It is an orange tint and the color come from the added tomatoes and tomato sauce that goes into the rice.  Also, if using chicken broth, that adds to the color as well.  More tomato = more color.  Where do you find this yellow Tex-Mex rice?  Are talking about pre-packaged mess that is labeled 'Mexican' rice? 

Glendapup
Glendapup

True. It's not saffron that makes the Mexican rice yellow. What makes the rice yellow, trust me, you don't want to know.

Jack Tyler
Jack Tyler

I'd like to say that I know where it is grown there, but strangely, I've never seen a rice field there.  I DO know that in most Mexican restaurant kitchens, you will see bags of Louisiana rice.  Mexico is the single largest consumer of U.S. rice (60% of their rice comes from the U.S.).

BogosianW
BogosianW

Interesting Jack, where are the rice-growing areas in Mexico?Do they use terraced mountain-scapes?

Jack Tyler
Jack Tyler

I feel that you are over-simplifying what I was talking about.  Different regions in Mexico have different tendencies in cooking various staples and off the top of my head, I'll mention a couple. In the Veracruz area, there is a lot of influence from Cuban immigrants... in the music... the dress... in the food. The food there tends to lean toward the milder side and the rice tends to be more like one would find in Cuba... white and not particularly spicy. The seafood dishes that are popular in Veracruz (tomato-based/mild peppers/olives) , such as huachinango a la Veracruzana, might even be served over white rice.  On the Yucatan peninsula, from Merida, let's say, toward the Riviera Maya, the Maya people tend to cook a very bland reddish-yellow rice that may or may not be cooked with chicken broth... but is colored with achiote (grown in most of the yards of those living in these small jungle villages)... the food is still largely based upon pre-Spanish-contact recipes. Yes.  Rice is rice, but the prep varies all over the country.

Hippiechica
Hippiechica

Bet you can't name 3 'regional' rice dishes in Mexico. Ones that would Mexicans would eat and say 'oh, this must be rice from ____'.

Jack Tyler
Jack Tyler

Actually there is no such thing and Mexican rice and rice preparation is as regional as Mexican sauces can be.  What we get here is really more Tex-Mex than "Mexican". That's probably why Katharine used quotation marks.

VirginiaH
VirginiaH

I've seen Jack down a plateful of nopalitos, with the spines attached. Followed by a stuffed habanero and shot of mezcal. The man has cajones like a toro!

Jack Tyler
Jack Tyler

I think that if you are comparing Texas Gulf Coast seafood (Christie's) with Louisiana Gulf Coast seafood, the word bland could arguably be used. However, I wouldn't do it. I just think Christie's is serving seafood the same way they have for 70 years.  However, I happen to like the spicier Louisiana seafood, too.  Now, the daredevil-dragon-heat thing... while I can take the heat, I don't seek out heat for the sake of heat (I prefer Jalapenos to habaneros... flavor over heat).

Connaught34
Connaught34

Jack, Aren't you a big fan of Christie's Seafood? That place defines bland. And senior.

Give DJs a whirl: it will get you into the 'city', and I think they could accomodate your daredevil-dragon-heat requirements.

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