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Gran Success

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

On a third visit, I found the chicken tinga tacos equally impressive, the chicken moist and smoky from a braise of chipotle peppers in adobo, the soft shreds of meat topped with sweet, crunchy pepitas. The toasted pumpkin seeds were a departure from the standard cilantro y cebollo you'd see on a street taco like this, and a pleasant one. Those same clever, modern touches are also in dishes like the tamales al chipotle, where a dusky chipotle sauce under those warm tamales elevates the old standard in a way that both considers the provenance of the food and pushes it forward along a similar, enlightened path. They're thoughtful additions that enhance the food, and are never avant-garde purely for the sake of it.

I love the direction of this modern Tex-Mex movement in Houston, also seen at places like Xuco Xicana, and the fact that El Gran Malo is so gloriously understated in their interpretation of it. Prices are reasonable here, the restaurant is welcoming, the service relaxed and friendly. Menus are crumpled into silver containers on the tables along with silverware, the tables surrounded by charmingly mismatched chairs.

Despite the casual vibe, 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. Plus, the more serrano-marinated red snapper tacos you order at once, the cheaper they are: One taco is $3.95, but you can mix-and-match five for $16.95.
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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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By the time I made my last visit to El Gran Malo, the place had started to feel like an old friend.

I started seeing familiar faces behind the bar — former Voice sommelier Todd Leveritt is there some nights, creating masterful concoctions like that addictive tomatillo-and-beef-jerky-tequila Bloody Maria — and I had already ticked off most of the tequila infusions on my list. I was pleased to see that in addition to the mural being nearly completed, another piece of local painter Kevin Hernandez's artwork was hung, too: a shrewd send-up of Magritte's The Son of Man, with a sombrero in place of a bowler hat and a lime in place of an apple.

Older couples from the neighborhood were enjoying dinner in the main dining room, which is barely recognizable from its days as Heights West save the icehouse-style doors that are permanently rolled closed. Young hipsters clustered at the dark bar, the bottles of booze lit by colorful LED strips that co-owner Lea McKinney installed herself. The patio had been enlarged and was decorated with papel picado and fairy lights, inviting if it weren't so cold outside. Although it had only been four months since it opened, El Gran Malo already seemed to have settled into its skin.

My girlfriends and I eagerly tore into the menu, ordering nearly every small bite all at once and the night's special, flautas. I'm sure that El Gran Malo gets more than a few complaints that its chips and salsa are $4.95, but the salsas are almost worth the price, especially the Chuy's-esque jalapeño-ranch dip that no sane person can resist. Besides, when the rest of the food is this good, you don't want to spend all your stomach space on chips and salsa.

We eagerly gobbled up empanadas filled with plantains, black beans, poblano peppers and stretchy, melty layers of cotija cheese, dipping the lightly charred flour tortillas into a bright, tangy tomatillo salsa. We fought over the beautifully plated chicken-filled tamales whose masa was far too thick, but also too velvety smooth for me to complain too much. And while my friends enjoyed a plate of diablos al caballo — goat cheese-and-gorgonzola-stuffed jalapeños — the smoky bacon wrapper and sweet melon sauce on the pepper I picked off the plate couldn't extinguish the astonishing amount of heat coming off the little white seeds inside. I'd somehow gotten the super-heated one of the bunch, but enjoyed it regardless.

We even appreciated the decent ceviche that — while not perfect — was a vast improvement over the version I had on my first visit. The fish was now a bit too marinated, but the bright, nose-clearing smashes of serrano peppers and aji amarillo were almost good enough to make up for the slightly mushy fish.

At the beginning of dinner, I'd shaken off the cold with a Dark & Earthy, El Gran Malo's twist on a Dark & Stormy using beet-infused tequila in place of dark rum.

"We ran out of the red beet-infused tequila," the bartender told me when I'd ordered it. A grin crossed my face as it dawned on me that other people were enjoying the beet-infused tequila as much as I had been, the softness of the root vegetables entirely canceling out any harshness of the spirit and instead enhancing the agave's own natural sweetness. "We only have golden beet left." Which was equally fine with me, and made for a stunning, topaz-colored cocktail whose gentle color belied the kick from the ginger beer inside.

By dinner's end, I was nursing a white sangria for dessert, fat blueberries floating on top as I considered the exceptional range of both El Gran Malo's kitchen and bar, both divey and endlessly, effortlessly creative at the same time. "It's like eating dinner at Grand Prize," noted one of my friends. "If Grand Prize had awesome food."

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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 jalapeño 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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