When you walk inside El Gran Malo, the Heights' brand-new tequila bar, you'll immediately notice one thing and eventually notice another.
Like with dating, the former is more fun ("Wow! He has six-pack abs!"), while the latter is more important ("Shit. He may be in love with his mother.").
You'll immediately notice the extra-large, possibly voodoo-infused mural. It's about 20 feet long and features, among other things, the Virgin Mary, a mariachi band, a masked luchador in a tidy tuxedo, a topless mermaid (pretty much the best kind of mermaid) and either a tiny donkey carrying a normal-size taco or a normal-size donkey carrying a gigantic taco. The homage to Hispanic culture is the bar's principal theme; it's also extra fun, an equally prominent feature.
The mural dominates what passes for a dining area among El Gran Malo's three sections. An expansive patio sits at the front of the venue, with a large open-air area with tall ceilings and restaurant seating at the entrance. At the rear is a small enclave with low ceilings, tall tables, barstools and the bar; it's loud, where most gather as the evening pushes towards EGM's current midnight curfew.
"It's real cool," says first-time visitor Raul Martinez, 30, who drove all the way from 288 South to visit with his wife after a friend who lives in the area recommended the place. "You can come to eat or get drunk. It's real laid-back and friendly."
Other people we approached echoed these same sorts of niceties.
Nightfly note: All this fun might seem to contradict the bar's heritage. EGM is aligned in ownership with Dirt Bar, the semi-brooding, semi-mysterious rock bar that, after six years in its originally obscure setting, does its very best to hold tight to its reclusive persona in its new downtown location (1209 Caroline).
Little to no trace of Dirt's rocker elitism can be found at EGM. About the closest you'll get is talking to enjoyably with-it co-owner Steve Sharma, who answered "Why'd you all move Dirt?" with a three-minute soliloquy that eventually became an impromptu analysis of rock economics. EGM is Garth Brooks to Dirt's Chris Gaines, and that's meant in the best possible way. At any rate...
The thing you eventually notice about EGM is, at the posterior of the semi-dining area, what amounts to a china cabinet. It glows with neon light, built very much like Pedro Cerrano's shrine to Jobu in Major League. Within are specimen jars each filled with tequila and fruit.
These jars are the reason El Gran Malo will grow even more popular than it already has become in the mere weeks that it's been open. The bar specializes in "infused tequila," essentially tequila flavored like things you wouldn't expect tequila to be flavored like — grapefruit, jalapeño, grapefruit jalapeño.
Sharma lifted the idea from his time in California. "Any time you go to a new city, you notice what yours has that theirs doesn't, and what theirs has that yours doesn't," he says. El Gran Malo is currently the only venue in the city to prominently feature a wide selection of infused tequila, which makes flexibility a major part of the bar's business plan.
"We almost feel like evil scientists," laughs Sharma. "They'll ask us to mix different things or try different things. There's a fun exchange or interplay with the people."
Seems true enough. On this busy Wednesday evening, seemingly everybody is smiling, laughing and appearing to not hate anything.
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Furthermore, someone (or multiple someones) at EGM spends a good portion of the day fresh-squeezing fruit for drinks like syrup-free margaritas. Add to that the venue's rapid absorption of the Greater Heights' general come-as-you-are attitude. Add to that the appeal of Tex-Mex foodstuffs.
Maybe El Gran Malo doesn't even need any voodoo.
"El Gran Malo" is Spanish for "The Big Bad." We can't think of a situation where you'd need to know that unless you're a professional wrestler in a Mexican league, in which case you might need to say that phrase, like, ten times a day. Also, two shows you need to be aware of this weekend: Jealous Creature, recent Houston Press Rocks Off Artist of the Week, will be at AvantGarden (411 Westheimer) this Friday. Check them out and buy their atomic new album, Little Heaven Big Sky. Also, Nightfly favorites Los Skarnales and Lower Life Form will be at Fitzgerald's (2706 White Oak) that same night. Go to one of them.