El Real Tex-Mex Cafe & Shrine: Revival of the Fittest

Categories: Local Spotlight

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Photos by Troy Fields
The marquee is best appreciated at night, neon lights in full bloom.
Earlier this week, it was reported that Trader Joe's will likely be moving into the old Alabama Theater on West Alabama at Shepherd, thereby saving the old theater from obscurity and possible demolition. It's the latest in a string of good news for Houston's old movie houses, which are as endangered as old-school Tex-Mex once was.

El Real solved both of those dilemmas when owners Robb Walsh, Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd rescued the decaying Tower Theater, built in 1936, and turned it into a shrine to the glory days of vintage Tex-Mex, the days of puffy tacos and stacked enchiladas and refried beans made with sharp, creamy lard.

A few months after opening, the El Real team even renovated the old neon marquee out front, and this formerly dim curve in Montrose suddenly glittered once again under its festive orange and blue lights. Inside, the restaurant glows under brightly painted walls lined with portraits of Tex-Mex high priests and priestesses past.

There's a lot to be said for innovation in Mexican restaurants -- take Hugo's just down the street, the subject of yesterday's 100 Favorite Dishes post -- and the way they skillfully weave new dishes and ingredients into what our "idea" of Mexican food truly is. But there's just as much to be said for a restaurant that embraces one of our most deeply rooted core cuisines and elevates it on a level that would likely give grande dame Diana Kennedy a fit if she ever set foot in the brightly festooned place.

That's Houston for you, and that's Robb Walsh, the Tex-Mex evangelist.

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Aside from being an evangelist, Walsh has laughingly referred to himself as the "Tex-Mex apologist" for about five years, ever since a blogger in Portland was quoted as saying, "I know Texans like Robb Walsh try to insist that Velveeta makes good food, but he's just plain wrong. He's drank a little too much of his own Tex-Mex apologist Kool-Aid."

Walsh has chronicled the history of one of America's most enduringly popular regional cuisines for decades, writing three books on the subject in the process. The cuisine, which was first named "Tex-Mex" in 1875, has long been derided by influential figures like Kennedy, but that hasn't deterred Walsh. In fact, he -- along with other food historians -- believes that true Tex-Mex cuisine started up in 1581, making Tex-Mex the country's oldest regional cuisine as well.

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It's that deep well of history that Walsh plumbs in El Real, a restaurant with a slavish devotion to giving Tex-Mex the attention and respect that it deserves. And it's no accident that he, Caswell and Floyd housed it in an old building like the imposing Tower Theater.

With those high ceilings, dramatic icons of historic figures lining the walls and grand banks of neon lights, it looks every bit the devout shrine to Tex-Mex it was meant to be.

Read more about El Real in this week's cafe review, and take a trip behind the scenes in our slideshow.



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Location Info

El Real Tex-Mex Cafe

1201 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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46 comments
lupe tortilla
lupe tortilla

Making something as simple as the daily bread, not on a daily basis, but as a special treat is what memories are made of. Whether it's the biscuts 

lupe tortilla
lupe tortilla

Making something as simple as the daily bread, not on a daily basis, but as a special treat is what memories are made of. Whether it's the biscuts 

KiefnerC
KiefnerC

Underwhelming food, high prices, with a cold, not cool atmosphere. But continues to draw some folks due the Tex-Mex nostalgia factor, Walsh curiosity, and Floyd/Caswell PR machine and social connections. It will survive another two years, thrive for less. Seriously, Don Julio's on Westheimer is better, and just feels better.

ArchieLeach
ArchieLeach

I haven't made it out here yet but I'm working it.  I made my list of places to eat in 2011 before the new year but I do allow write-ins.  ;)

And now I'm hungry. 

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

I saw the words "El Real" and counted down, aloud to my dog, "And three, two, one...."

So much negative energy wasted on such yummy food. I had their tres leches recently and it was crazy good. And not just because I was drunk, either!

Kelli
Kelli

@KGB  I believe I'm cooler than you dipshit. 

@everyone When are you not complaining the HP is in "cohoots" with chefs, restaurants, owners, nachos, care bears, should I keep going?  Give it a fucking rest already.

FOR REAL!!!

J.
J.

Just a note on timing.  I'm pretty sure the sign was renovated before the restaurant opened--even before the build out as I recall. 

KGB
KGB

Speaking of "puffy," what exactly is the point of this piece? oh... I know... You've got to find SOME way to continue pimping Walsh and Caswell! After all, it's probably been a few weeks.

And since when is old school Tex Mex in Houston "endangered?" This seems to imply that El Real somehow raised this "forgotten" cuisine up from the ashes, when there a good number of places in Houston that have been doing just fine with Old School Tex Mex – for years – long before El Real came along.

Early Cuyler
Early Cuyler

Why would anyone here give a flying crap about what some hipster food blogger from Portland has to say about Tex-Mex food?  I'll take old-school enchiladas and tacos over locavore, I need to ask my life coach if it is ok to eat something that isn't grown within 2.5 kilometers of my communal co-op, I only bathe two times a week, beardo Portland crap any day of the week.

Ali
Ali

I did the same thing, only aloud to my plate of scrambled eggs since I don't have a dog. 

All this bitchin' and moaning about HP doing stories on Walsh/Caswell is 9 kinds of stupid. It's. A. Fucking. Food. Column. For. The. Love. Of. Purple.You'd swear they were writing Natzi propaganda or some shit.

Wendell
Wendell

Wrong. The sign was recently renovated within the last couple of months. They opened the restaurant, then renovated the sign. True story.

When the restaurant opened they did have the marquee, but the neon was not 100% and it did not have the marquee letters EL REAL and TEX MEX. Those came later.

Jamescristinian
Jamescristinian

Reading this and the cafe review, if I didn't know better I would think this is Walsh's place with Caswell and Floyd being along for the ride.  I think it's the other way around. I heard Walsh on 1560 am's erstwhile Southbound Food Show and he admitted that his recipies don't translate to restaurant food.  I'll give "the ALMOST universally beloved critic" credit for being an idea man, and that's about it.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

The point of this piece -- as is the point of all our review advances -- is to direct our blog readers to the weekly cafe review. And although we have a lot of Tex-Mex in town, we have very few joints that I'd consider truly great -- or truly vintage.

Bruce R
Bruce R

How do you know the guy from Portland is a hipster?  Maybe he's a nerdy engineer that works for Intel.

Anyway, Portland is a pretty cool city.  You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a great beer, and it's easy to eat well there.  Doubters should go see a show at the Crystal Ballroom and stay at the Kennedy School.

Megan
Megan

Hee!  Very true.  The nice thing about this country is you don't have to patronize a business if you don't like the people owning it.  No one's holding a gun to your head and saying, "YOU MUST EAT HERE."

J.
J.

From Swamplot:

Permitting has already begun fora new Tex-Mex restaurant in Montrose, which will be neatlyinserted into the former Tower Theater buildingon Westheimer at Yoakum. The marquee on the Art Deco building has already beenrestored to neon-and-fluorescent glory. Next up: rebuilding the theater’sformer balcony, removed when the building was gutted andconverted to a Hollywood Video store a few years back. Theyet-to-be-named restaurant will be a joint project of Bill Floyd and BryanCaswell of Reef and former HoustonPress restaurant critic Robb Walsh, who’swritten several Tex-Mex cookbooks.My Table reports the newrestaurant is scheduled to open at the beginning of 2011.

I agree the name was added later, but I wouldn't call that renovation.

KiefnerC
KiefnerC

well, duh, Walsh is the figure head and consulting food guy. 

KGB
KGB

Sorry, but I'm calling you out on this one. You're lying to yourself. You're promoting your mentor's restaurant, plain and simple.

Brittanie Shey
Brittanie Shey

Why would go around knocking over beers with dead cats?

Early Cuyler
Early Cuyler

Oh I have seen it.  It is what I based my truly astute observations of all things Portland.  As you know, if it is on tv, it must be true.

KiefnerC
KiefnerC

You might note from the cover story in this week's Press, that the editorial and advertising departments are not only not connected, but often working at counter-purposes.

BigT
BigT

You have one? Really? Way to earn the right to flap your gums like a jackass.

Megan
Megan

No, actually, I haven't.  I wasn't a native Texan.  I only lived in the state for six years, and I've moved back north, where I apparently belong.  God forbid I haven't heard of one of the thousands of restaurants in Houston.

KGB
KGB

and I agree that Leo's was the pinnacle. Felix on the other hand was bland and usually terrible

KGB
KGB

uh... have you heard of Spanish Village?

Megan
Megan

I'm afraid to mention it (lest I get copied), but the only place that comes to my mind is Molina's.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

If we're going to start quoting O Brother Where Art Thou, I'd like to add "We thought you was a toad!" to get this thing up and running.

Early Cuyler
Early Cuyler

That's funny, I was actually thinking he would say Lupe Tortilla's.  To which I would have responded with a line from O' Brother Where Art Thou, "hell they ain't even old timey!".  I agree with Leo's and Felix as well, until El Real, there was nothing that tasted old school like those places.  Unless KGB would kindly share his mystery spots.

Maggie_Mae
Maggie_Mae

He'd probably name Pappasito's & Lupe Tortilla's.  Houston has a shitload of fine restaurants in the Tex-Mex/Mexican continuum.  But El Real hits the spot for those of us who miss Leo's & Felix.

Early Cuyler
Early Cuyler

Cool, then you won't mind naming these bastions of old school Tex-Mex that you alluded to in your original post, I would sure like to know where they are.

Early Cuyler
Early Cuyler

Yeah, noticed that too late.  Must have been because I was watching "Live In Chicago" over the weekend and had them on my mind.

KGB
KGB

Tell that to the restaurants that are paying for advertising space in the Press.

Terry Alexander
Terry Alexander

And I fail to see the problem with knowing someone who will help promote your resturant. Isn't word of mouth what keeps business moving ahead?TA

KGB
KGB

This blog post being associated / linked with a cafe review is completely irrelevant. In fact, it may further support my original point. And yes, Walsh has opened a restaurant like many other people in this city. Nothing personal against him – or even the restaurant, for that matter. I like some of its food. But you'd be a fool to think El Real doesn't get extra attention because of Walsh's former position with this publication.

KGB
KGB

I actually suspect I'm older than you, dipshit. 

Brittanie Shey
Brittanie Shey

So far, this is the first review of El Real. We ran blog posts on it, right after it opened (because the opening was news) but this is the first, and only, review we've run.

FBI
FBI

You sir, are an ass.

The HP does this every week. Do you not read the replies in the comment threads? KS clearly told you, the HP does this with EVERY cafe review. She even gave you a link to follow which you clearly did not. Here's the link in its full form since you do not realize that blue text in these comments are links!

http://www.houstonpress.com/se...

Sure, Walsh used to write for the HP but now he owns a restaurant and like a lot of restaurants in Houston, they get reviewed.

In your line of thinking every review the HP writes is promotion regardless of who owns it.

You live in a fantasy world. Go back there and don't come back to this one.

KGB
KGB

Ok, I'll leave it at this – How many times has El Real been reviewed / profiled / featured the HP? It seems as though the local press (not only you) is constantly giving the restaurant a chance to redeem itself, but it can't.

Early Cuyler
Early Cuyler

Wow, with the omniscient power that you so obviously possess, why in the hell are trolling the HP comment threads?  I would be winning the lottery ween in and week out.  By the way, name a few of these old school Tex-Mex joints that are still around if you would because I don't think your old enough to remember truly old school Tex-Mex based on your comments, but then again, I don't know everything as you obviously do.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

LOL. Okay. But seriously, we do review advances every single week, for every single cafe review. Click the link in my previous post and find out for yourself if you'd like, but it sounds like the world you live in is pretty interesting too.  :)

Early Cuyler
Early Cuyler

That was a funny ass episode by the way.  Bike left, bike right!

Early Cuyler
Early Cuyler

See, that is just wrong.  I did not need to know his name,  I prefer my yummy animals to remain anonymous.

Georgia's Market
Georgia's Market

The chicken you will be dining on this evening is Collin. Love.

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