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Gran Success

The infused tequilas and modern Tex-Mex at this neighborhood hangout are bien bueno.

Check out El Gran Malo's colorful mural and tequila shrine for yourself.

On a Sunday night in November, half the city was watching the Houston Dynamo play their toughest against — and ultimately lose to — the L.A. Galaxy in the final game of the MLS Cup. I was, too, although I wasn't watching at a rowdy sports bar or from my own couch at home — I was watching the match at El Gran Malo along with a Bloody Maria made with beef jerky-infused tequila and tomatillos, and a massive beef torta with a fried egg on top. Most of the kitchen crew was lined up along the window into the kitchen, intentionally watching between orders. El Gran Malo may not be the first spot I'd recommend for a televised sporting event, but that night it felt perfect.

There was an affinity that night between the bartenders, the kitchen crew, the waitresses and the patrons as we all watched, transfixed, although I did notice the sadly underseasoned beef in the otherwise excellent torta that night, the patty in desperate need of at least some salt.

The tacos and margaritas are full of clever, modern touches.
Troy Fields
The tacos and margaritas are full of clever, modern touches.

Location Info

Map

El Gran Malo

2307 Ella
Houston, TX 77008

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Heights

Details

Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight Mondays through Thursdays, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. to midnight Sundays.
Salsa sampler: $4.95
Quesadillas: $5.95
Diablos a caballo: $5.95
Empanadas: $6.95
Ceviche: $6.95
Tacos: $3.95
Torta: $8.95


READ MORE:
SLIDESHOW: Una Gran Sorpresa at El Gran Malo
BLOG POST: El Gran Malo es La Mas Gran y La Mejor de Gastrocantinas


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Normally, the torta here is a rather remarkable thing, both burger and torta all in one. And though it's clearly terrible for you — especially once you really get going and start stacking fried eggs and crispy pork belly and salty chorizo between the craggy beef patty and the soft telera bread — I find myself craving it at all hours of the day, and pondering the idea that every burger would be exponentially better with hefty amounts of crema and poblano peppers on top. (They would, too.)

El Gran Malo may be better known for its vast tequila selection and house-infused spirits right now, but if the kitchen keeps turning out creations like the Angus beef torta, it'll soon be equally famous for its food. The restaurant seems eager to take that path, too, with a menu designed by chef Greg Lowry (formerly of Voice, soon to be chef de cuisine at Triniti) and an initial press release that described the place as a "gastrocantina."

There have been a few other gastrocantinas in the country prior to El Gran Malo, but I get the feeling that Gran Malo is the only place to really get the concept right so far. It's a silly portmanteau, to be sure, but it's the closest thing I've found to accurately describe the bent of a restaurant that's part dive bar, part modern Tex-Mex, part cocktail mecca, part locavore haven, part craft beer purveyor and part neighborhood hangout, seeming to actively and audaciously defy labeling.
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My first visit to El Gran Malo was a whirlwind friends-and-family night, where the owners had invited regular patrons of their other establishment — the purposely under-the-radar Dirt Bar — and nearby residents of its Timbergrove neighborhood to see exactly what a gastrocantina is.

That same dark-and-divey Dirt Bar aesthetic had gotten a bit spiffed up here, with a wickedly glowing shrine to tequila decorating one broad wall and a Kevin Hernandez mural of Lotería cards, luchadores and the Virgen herself on another. The waitresses were decked out in cheeky punk rock chic, rumbling from one table to the next like derby girls. Shots of tequila were passed around tables one after another, gulped down as fast as a waitress could describe the various infusions: "That one's habanero-ginger, and that one's cucumber-mint." The red lights and close quarters and manic energy made it feel like being swallowed alive by a Mexican traveling circus, tattooed women and all.

And although I loved the blatantly surreal feeling of the place, I wasn't as impressed with the food. The ceviche had barely been marinated and the corn tortillas of the tacos fell apart under the weight of some rather bland snapper and chicken inside. "I'll come back here for the tequila," I thought to myself. "But not the food."

Less than a month later, I was back. For tequila, mostly. I wanted to try the increasingly fascinating infusions that owners Dimitre Dimitrov, Steve Sharma and Lea McKinney had been creating. Dimitrov told me about the infusions that had worked — red and golden beet, for example, and more traditional flavors like strawberry and mango — and those that hadn't, like a too-delicate starfruit infusion that was lost in the flavor of the tequila. Not all of the infusions work, after all — and not all of them are for every palate, either. But when they do, they make some of the most miraculous margaritas in town, like the "thymus" infusion of fresh thyme and other herbs that results in a brisk, clean, grassy flavor that complements the floral notes in the tequila itself.

I casually ordered a few tacos to soak up the margaritas, and was floored to find the boring tacos from a month ago replaced by respectable ones, double-wrapped in hot corn tortillas and plump with Victoria beer-marinated carnitas, scallions, cilantro and red onions.

But it was the pleasantly fatty, crispy and caramel-tinged pork belly marinated in Mexican Coca-Cola with pickled red onions and peanuts that sent me over the edge. I hadn't given El Gran Malo a fair shake the first time around on that whirlwind night, and was reeling to find the food so improved in such a short amount of time.

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15 comments
Nick
Nick

We went last night and were interested to finally try a restaurant we've heard so much about from the Press and people alike. One of the worst experiences ever. None of our "specialty drinks" tasted like they had alcohol in them but instead tasted like watered down fire (guess that's the habanero and jalapeƱo infusion). One of our tacos came out with only lettuce on the tortilla- no meat, seasoning, or anything else it was supposed to come with, and the whole staff just seemed really disorganized. With Tony's across the street it was just a real disappointment we even ate there. If this is Gastrocantina then I'm not sure I want part of this trend. Maybe this place was great when it opened, Katherine, but I don't know if you'd have the same feelings now.

Stacey
Stacey

@ec my classmate's mom makes $79/hr on the internet. She has been without a job for 8 months but last month her paycheck was $7695 just working on the internet for a few hours. Here's the site to read more LazyCash4. com

ec
ec

The tacos in the photo don't look inventive to me. Looks like the kitchen doesn't like to chop the cilantro and instead just puts the entire leaf on top. Then to see the bottled salsa, seems just the opposite of inventive.

Ben Thayer
Ben Thayer

Getting out to the Heights doesn't happen as often as I'd like. Thankfully this most recent visit involved stopping at Gran Malo. My antennae about the place was up with a description like Gastro Cantina. Turns out that is very much what this place is all about. The food was inventive in a good way, never forgetting that a taco is comfort food. Both the shrimp and the pork belly versions were first-rate. There was a strong selections of beer and I was definitely impressed with the first infused tequila I've had.

While it seems like more of a hang out spot for the late twenties and early thirties crowd, we didn't feel out of place. Imagine when the weather gets going again in the spring this is going to be an happy patio spot. A nice addition to Houston and a colorful and promising take on our cities love affair of Mexican and Tex Mex.

Matthew
Matthew

charging for chips and salsa in houston should be a crime punishable by a tarring and feathering. booooooo!!!

Greg
Greg

Katherine I am the sous chef at Triniti. Could you change that please

Hugh Ramsey
Hugh Ramsey

Grand Prize often has awesome food, on the weekends when Feast or Modular or others are there.

Not sayin, just sayin

H_e_x
H_e_x

Oh sweet baby Jesus that better be the best taco in the world for that price.

brandius
brandius

Remember when I was all, "Eh, Im not into tex-mex or any of that kind of stuff"?

Now Im hungry and I blame you. I wake up in the middle of the night with taco sweats.

iLoveEspresso&warmMilk
iLoveEspresso&warmMilk

$4 is a lot for a taco. $3.40 for a taco is SLIGHTLY better (the 5 for 17 deal). And $5 for chips and salsa? Why not just get my own from a grocery store?

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Yep. Fair warning, like I said: "...you will pay a little more for your tacos here than you would at Tacos Tierra Caliente, but they're made with better ingredients and in more inventive combinations than you'll find elsewhere." They're expensive, but you get what you pay for here.

iLoveEspresso&warmMilk
iLoveEspresso&warmMilk

eh. "inventive" is a pretty subjective assertion upon which to base the logic that you get what you pay for...

iLoveEspresso&warmMilk
iLoveEspresso&warmMilk

Sorry Katharine. I just realized I spend $4 on a Gordita at Taco Bell. Go ahead on with your great reviews, girl.

 
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