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Southwest on Washington

Anyway you spell TQLA, it's fabulous.

See more photos from TQLA's dining room, kitchen and its vast tequila selection in our slideshow.

Any apprehensions I may have initially felt about a restaurant called TQLA (pronounced, yes, as "tequila") located right in the thick of clubby Washington Avenue melted completely away with each successive meal at the on-point Southwestern restaurant run by veteran chef Tommy Birdwell.

Birdwell and his team moved here from Dallas (one apprehension) back in November, with the intentions of opening a restaurant that would also feature a bar with 167 tequila choices (another apprehension). Neither tequila (the drink) nor the restaurant's address on Washington Avenue have had the most successful PR campaigns, as it were, in the last few years. And the last thing a Houstonian like myself is generally interested in is an import from our big-haired sister up north.

The pumpkin seed-crusted salmon will make your week.
Troy Fields
The pumpkin seed-crusted salmon will make your week.

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TQLA

4601 Washington Ave.
Houston, TX 77007

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Heights

Details

See a slideshow from TQLA's kitchen.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays; 11 a.m. to midnight Thursdays through Saturdays.

Guacamole fresca: $8.95

Calamari La Paz: $9.95

Shredded pork carnitas tacos: $10.25

Ensenada chicken enchiladas: $11.25

Pumpkin seed-crusted salmon: $16.95

Bert's green chile burger: $13.95

Apple crisp: $7.95

TQLA

4601 Washington, 281-501-3237.

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Yet over three meals, I've become more and more besotted with the place, even with its vast tequila selection and the creative uses which partner and tequilier — the tequila version of a sommelier — Scott Lindsey has found for the Mexican spirit. Consider the añejo Old Fashioned, which I've sipped several times now as a post-dinner replacement for a sugary dessert: aged tequila taking the place of bourbon in the classic cocktail, simple syrup and Angostura bitters somehow pairing even more effortlessly with the tequila than with bourbon. I know this sounds like heresy, but as long as my glass of heresy is garnished with twists of lemon and orange — every bit an Old Fashioned except for the liquor — I'm perfectly okay with that.

And in a city where we've become unaccustomed to Southwestern flavors since the gradual decline of the cuisine somewhere around the mid-1990s, TQLA's menu is full of unexpectedly delicious offerings just like that añejo Old Fashioned. Pumpkin seed-crusted salmon with green chile mashed potatoes made my entire week one recent evening after a parade of lackluster meals elsewhere around town.

While the dish isn't cheap — nearing $17 — it almost seemed a bargain when it landed in front of me, a piece of fresh salmon nearly the size of a carburetor swaggering atop a pile of skin-on, roughly mashed potatoes that matched the salmon's macho attitude. I was pleased to find the salmon cooked perfectly, still a blushing, coral pink all the way through, with a generous portion of sweet peppers on top that balanced out the pepitas that clung thickly to one side of the fish. Those pepitas — pumpkin seeds — are a common Southwestern ingredient, as are the green chiles in the mashed potatoes, that you rarely run across on Houston menus. And while I wasn't initially inclined to re-embrace Southwestern food after a long absence of truly good Southwestern restaurants, TQLA has brought me back into the fold.

The green chiles that studded the mashed potatoes were so good, in fact, it was all I could do to keep my dining companion off them. We both took greedy, gulping bites of the potatoes (the splash of tangy tequila-lime butter on top only making us greedier) until not even a trace was left. The same thing happened to the cornmeal-crusted fried green tomatoes on the side and, ultimately, to the salmon itself. A clean plate at a restaurant, especially when the portions are this big, is rare.
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That's not to say all the portions are this massive. Which is good, too, as it wouldn't quite fit with the clean flavors and relatively healthy feel of many of TQLA's menu items.

The chicken enchiladas, for example, are short and sweet on the plate: two enchiladas covered with a vivid salsa verde that sings brightly amidst piles of swarthy poblano peppers and caramelized onions. I wished the chicken inside had been shredded instead of roughly torn into large chunks that were too difficult to cut with a fork, but found no fault with the punchy black beans or tangy cilantro rice that came on the side.

The pork carnitas, too, feature only two tacos per plate (served with those same rice and beans), but are stuffed with strands of shredded pork — some fine and wispy, some thick and moist — that carry a distinctly sweet, almost herbal flavor that I couldn't pin down. I reveled in the tacos' toppings, too: chopped cilantro and onions along with caramelized onions, a crumbling of queso fresco and a squeeze of lime. It was almost exactly what would have been handed down from the window at El Ultimo, my favorite taco truck in town, were El Ultimo in the business of sit-down meals with tequila flights.

One evening, I was just as excited to find that TQLA does burgers, too, as skillfully as it does enchiladas and tacos. Nothing makes me happier than receiving a medium-rare burger cooked exactly that way, cutting it in half and allowing the juices to flood the bun with flavor. The ooze factor is upped significantly here on Bert's green chile burger with the addition of jalapeño-flecked cheese and broad, creamy slices of avocado. And while the accompanying shoestring-style fries were listless and largely flavorless, the burger was so good that I wouldn't have wanted to waste the stomach space on them anyway.
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17 comments
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Cece
Cece

Man, I just seriously can't believe that you guys think that TLQA is good. It sucked, big time! I was excited to go check it out since it was a good review. Wow! The food tasted like, you know, you know (SHIT). I didn't even eat there chips and salsa because the salsa was like take it away from where I'm sitting so it won't take up my space. Pretty bad. The bar could have been enhanced some and I don't know it just was bad. I think the people that liked the food just don't know any better.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

So, you didn't actually eat the food? And the only comparison you could draw between the food you didn't eat and any other substance on earth was comparing it to feces? Man, why don't you have MY job?! Great review!

Ann
Ann

To each his own. We eat out a lot and we've eaten at TQLA numerous times because we like it. We prefer TQLA's food over El Real, the new "it" spot. At least TQLA has flavor as well as good chips & salsa.

Lily
Lily

Wow! I am really surprised this place got a semi good review. I have been about three times and have always been dissapointed. I always ended up eating a few bites off my plate, then taking dinner to go from les givrals. The tequila selection is excellent but they have no idea what they are doing with some of their food on the menu. The calamari was not great, along with the blue corn fried oysters.. and I was very put off by the over chili powdered empanadas. They should focus more on their tequila and turn it into a bar/lounge, since the bar is always crowded, or get a new menu.

Guisyferri
Guisyferri

Nicely written and informative, though I still confess to feelings of backward time-travel when I see the word "Southwestern Cuisine". Who knows, maybe the old excesses and foibles of SW cooking have vanished a decade later, and TQLA is now a harbinger of a recycled trend gone right.

If so, I suppose that Washington Ave is the place to be, as the fashion quirks tend to be regurgitated from the 60's, 70's or '80's, worn proudly without irony.

On the other hand, TQLA might have considered the Woodlands, as that burg is young enough to have never lived through the first wave, and would consider it a complete novelty.

Aaron
Aaron

If they are now doing something right with their waitstaff, they must have learnt something or they had turnover. Been there twice, great food, lackluster service with little knowledge of tqlas. Glad to hear that has improved.

Has the soundtrack in there improved? Have they fixed the spelling errors on the dinner and drink menus?

guest
guest

What's a carburetor? My last three vehicles have come with fuel injection! ;-)

Jodie E
Jodie E

I had the same trepidation you did, Katharine but we have truly fallen in love; It is a go-to place for us. Mad for the chips and salsa, guac and queso (with or without the chorizo); love the chicken enchiladas (and don't mind the chunks o' moist chicken) and I appreciate the not-crazy portion sizes. We've tried most of the menu (sans dessert) and have yet to be disappointed. Drinks are great as has been service and I think the prices aren't bad at all. Don't fear The Washington ... go!

OST
OST

Our server was fantastic. They're doing something right when it comes to training the waitstaff. Can't wait to go back and try other tequilas and entrees.

Ann
Ann

TQLA is our go-to place. We've tried most of the menu items and were never disappointed. The food and presentation, drinks and service have been so good that I wonder why it's not crowded. I hope your review changes that, I'd hate to see them go away! One of the best guacamoles in town, the mushroom tamale is great, the bowl of beans delicious, even the chicken tortilla soup packs a kick. Case and Hanna have been excellent servers, suggesting tequilas and giving us history lessons. TQLA has a lunch menu now and Sunday is happy hour all day in the bar. We also love the free parking in the garage which is a rarity on Washington. Oops, almost forgot to mention the Quattro Leches cake (with coconut milk), pretty awesome.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

That quatro leches was one of the few things I disliked, but I'm not a big fan of overwhelming coconut flavors. Otherwise, yes - I, too, always wonder why it's not crowded there. The place is fab.

Craig
Craig

Shredded chicken is for poor people. Be happy you got the chunks.

Feldman
Feldman

I never tend to think of social class when it comes to the ease of cutting my food. I guess this falls under, "use a knife and fork you poor heathen."

Fatty FatBastard
Fatty FatBastard

Good write up. I was shocked at how much i enjoyed this place, as well. My favorite tequila has been one that was aged in a barrel that originally housed scotch. I will be trying their burger and guacamole very soon. I've yet to be disappointed at what I've eaten there.

Annie
Annie

The only problem with this place is that it's in the Heights. I guess I'll just pack my bags and go!

Fatty FatBastard
Fatty FatBastard

Annie... Please pack your bags and go.

That said, I think Blaze wins.

 
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