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The French Connection

Part 5 in the six-part history of Tex-Mex

Surely, the most intriguing cross-cultural trend is the emerging popularity of Tex-Mex in Mexico. While they are still considered a foreign cocktail, margaritas can be found at almost any Mexican hotel these days. And in resort areas, Tex-Mex chains such as Señor Frog's and Carlos and Charlie's are popular not only with American tourists, but with Mexican nationals as well.


On a chilly November Wednesday, I stop by the Chuy's on Richmond. The bar is decorated with modern-day Mexican murals. In the dining room where I am seated, the walls are covered with giant roses. Today's lunch special is Elvis's Fried Chicken with Green Chiles. The chicken is pounded flat like a chicken fried steak and coated with corn flakes before being deep fried. (Elvis was big on corn flakes.) A piece of cheese is melted on top, and the whole thing is slathered with New Mexican-style green chile sauce.

Chuy's: Arguably the first restaurant in Texas to understand that Tex-Mex is as much about attitude as it is about food.
Troy Fields
Chuy's: Arguably the first restaurant in Texas to understand that Tex-Mex is as much about attitude as it is about food.

Location Info

Map

Chuy's

2706 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77019

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: River Oaks

Details

2706 Westheimer, (713)524-1700; 6324 Richmond Avenue, (713)974-2322. Hours: Sundays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to midnight.

Comida Deluxe Dinner: $8.99
Elvis's Fried Chicken with Green Chiles lunch special: $6.95
Frozen margarita: $4.95

This green chile sauce has me all shook up. It is rip-your-lips-off hot. I spent four days reporting on the chile harvest in New Mexico last month, and I didn't eat any green chiles as hot as the ones in this sauce. Blazing hot chile sauce with extremely crunchy fried chicken -- it's like Chinese New Year's in your mouth. (Elvis wasn't big on subtlety.)

Despite the fact that it is a self-proclaimed Tex-Mex restaurant, Chuy's has become famous for its September green chile festivals, with peppers imported from New Mexico, and for its Santa Fe-style enchiladas. "Our classic Tex-Mex enchiladas aren't really classic Tex-Mex, either," Mike Young says with a laugh. "They are made with whole chiles, not with chile powder." But strict definitions have never been the point. It is the outlaw spirit of Tex-Mex that Chuy's has adopted, not the literal culinary interpretations.

Mike Young got it before anybody else in Texas. He realized Europeans were seeing something we weren't. They liked Tex-Mex for the same reason they liked blue jeans. Both were inexpensive, informal, and part of the American West. And if Tex-Mex could be hip in Europe, there was no reason why it couldn't be hip in Texas, too.

So Young set out on a defiant-yet-playful campaign to champion the underdog. At a time when old-fashioned Mexican restaurants like Monterey House and Loma Linda were losing business because customers considered them "too Tex-Mex," Chuy's bet against the bear market. Young and company began using the seemingly oxymoronic slogan "Fine Tex-Mex" on their menus. They printed t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Don't Mess With Tex-Mex." They began to add "Fine Tex-Mex" to their outdoor signage.

The strategy worked. The mini-chain now has 1,000 employees and nine restaurants in Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. In 1999, Chuy's, a restaurant owned by Anglos and famous for its New Mexican specialties, was voted "Best Tex-Mex" in the Houston Press "Best of Houston" issue.

Chuy's success has brought the wider international definition of Tex-Mex back home to Texas. "Tex-Mex has become a name for the peasant cooking of the Southwest," says Mike Young. "And the beauty of peasant cooking, whether it's French country cooking or Tex-Mex, is that it is simple, honest and affordable. I don't know what will happen to Southwestern cuisine or authentic Mexican in the future, but Tex-Mex will always be here."

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