By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
We had to pick up our chips and salsa and move our margaritas to make room when the waiter tried to park the monstrous, sizzling comal on our tabletop. It was well worth the trouble.
The parrillada especial at El Jardin on Harrisburg was a mountain of firm but tender grilled beef fajita strips, slices of chicken breast, and grilled pork that had been marinated in New Mexican-style adovada sauce — all on a bed of caramelized onions. Sitting upright with their tails in the air around the perimeter of the platter were six enormous grilled shrimp.
A plate of guacamole, lettuce, tomato, lime wedges and two plastic warmers containing an assortment of corn and hand-made flour tortillas were served on the side. The grill special was advertised as a dinner for four, but four of us couldn't come close to finishing it. It could easily have fed six.
7849 Harrisburg Blvd.
Houston, TX 77012
Region: East End
Fajitas for two: $20
Parrillada for four: $48
Jardin Deluxe: $9
Number Two Dinner: $9
Tamale lunch: $5.55
The cover of El Jardin's menu touted their "fajitas, margaritas and shrimp." After two visits, I had to agree that grilled meats and potent frozen margs were the things the restaurant did best. The charred meats had a wonderful hot-off-the-grill texture rather than the sogginess you get when the restaurant holds its grilled meats in a steam table. The frozen margaritas were so cold, you could stick a straw in the middle of the beer mug and it would stay upright indefinitely. There was plenty of lime juice in the slushy blend, and not too much sugar.
But it's not the quality of the food and drinks that makes El Jardin so much fun to visit. What really gets your attention are the bizarre location and the riotous decor.
Cranes towering above docked ships come into view as you drive east down Harrisburg. El Jardin is very close to the "Marine Park" section of the ship channel near Navigation. There are a lot of little "nite clubs" for sailors with signs in Spanish along the street. I liked the one advertising a nightly "bickiny contest."
"It's like you're not even in Houston anymore," one friend observed, looking around the neighborhood. The proliferation of carnicerías, taquerías, tortillerías and tricycle cart vendors selling Mexican candy give the area an exotic feel.
I drove down to the dock closest to Harrisburg to see what was going on. It was a surreal nighttime scene. Under blindingly bright lights, the cranes were loading ugly bales of scrap metal and crushed automobiles onto rusty freighters. "Are we in the Second Ward or the Third World?" I asked my passenger.
El Jardin turned out to be a lot larger than I expected, and it was topped with an unlikely pointed dome — like a Tex-Mex mosque. The carved wooden doors are adorned with parrots. Inside, some of the walls at this unrelentingly colorful restaurant are painted bright yellow with blue trim, the columns are hot pink and the cashier stand is Day-Glo orange.
The high-backed rope-seat chairs are actually made out of plastic. They're decorated with elaborate patterns and big, anthropomorphic suns. Talavera plates line the upper walls, and the ceiling is strung with cut-paper pennants. There's a mural on the back wall depicting a mercado on the streets of a Mexican village. If there's an undecorated square inch of wall space at El Jardin, I couldn't find it.
El Jardin was one of only three restaurants in the entire state that were mentioned in Joe Drape's article "A Celebration of Tex-Mex, Without Apology" in The New York Times food section last month. The other two were Herrera's in Dallas and El Mirador in San Antonio.
The article was criticized by Texas food writers, bloggers and assorted wags. (I was quoted a lot, so consider me biased.) There were some snarky comments about Drape's knowledge of women's footwear (don't ask). And there was much whining from Austin because the little city that wants to be weird wasn't mentioned. And then there was some second-guessing about the three restaurants the author chose to represent Tex-Mex.
No one questioned the choice of Herrera's Café, an old Tex-Mex institution in Dallas. Drape dug into a nostalgic combination plate there that recalled his days in Dallas as a college student and later a sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News.
The inclusion of El Mirador in San Antonio drew more fire. Drape ate homemade mole enchiladas there and wrote about the Mexican soups that are served on Saturday mornings. The Trevino family thinks they are serving authentic Mexican food. Maybe they are; maybe they aren't. But it might have been wise to avoid the argument at a self-avowed San Antonio Tex-Mex institution like Blanco Café, Henry's Puffy Tacos or Brown's Mexican Foods.
When Drape told me on the phone that his restaurant choice in Houston was El Jardin, I had to admit I had never heard of the place. Alison Cook, who lives on the East Side, said in her blog that she knows it well but seldom goes there. Sylvia's, Irma's or Spanish Flower would have been better choices in her book.
In light of the debate, I thought it would be an ideal time to go review the place.