I admit, my expectations were high for El Real Tex-Mex. And well they should be. Since it's a joint venture between James Beard nominee Bryan Caswell, and James Beard Award-winning writer and former Houston Press Food Critic Robb Walsh, I expected to be blown away. I expected fireworks on the palate, and a symphony of the senses on my first bite.
Instead, from the moment I stepped in the doors, it was as if I walked into some weird Twilight Zone where everything was off-kilter. It started the moment I walked through the doors around 5 p.m. on a Thursday, when not a single person - not even the hostess at the hostess stand - deigned to greet me.
I made a beeline for the bar, where my girlfriend was waiting for me, and where the lack of attention became more pronounced. My friend and I were the only people sitting there, but the bartender couldn't care less. She came over very grudgingly after I flagged her down - not a hint of a smile or an effort to please in her demeanor - and took the order with the enthusiasm of someone going to a funeral. Her attitude was so bad that I almost got up and walked out, but since I knew the traffic would be bad at that hour, I stayed the course.
It was happy hour, so we each ordered a couple of crispy tacos, along with queso flameado, or flaming cheese, and a prickly pear margarita. When the tacos came out, the meat filling looked like meat looks when it's been sitting around for a long time, kind of curdly and dry. It barely had any flavor and was less than remarkable. I'm not exaggerating when I say that Taco Bell tacos are better.
The queso flameado was well-presented, but after a few bites, it felt like a heavy weight had settled in my stomach, that awful "full feeling" that makes you feel nauseous. The heavy bowling-ball-in-your-stomach feeling stayed with me for several hours afterward.
My friend wanted dessert, so we ordered a tres leches, and it was the only saving grace in the entire meal. The tres leches was perfect in consistency, temperature, texture and flavor. But as for the rest of it?
The restaurant was basically empty and overstaffed when we arrived. The staff did little but mill around joking with each other for the duration of our meal. A new bartender started her shift around 6 p.m., and though she was somewhat better and more attentive than our first, she too, was less than cheery, asking if we needed anything with an unsmiling, straitlaced matter-of-factness.
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By the time we left at around 6:30 p.m., there was a smattering of people in the main dining room, but the bar was still empty, and no wonder. It's been a long time since I've had such a bad experience all-around at a restaurant, especially in Houston. Houstonians are known for being warm and friendly, and I experienced the exact opposite at El Real.
I'd heard mixed reviews from people who've been to El Real, and I realize that my experience may have been a one-off. So for all you folks who are positively outraged reading this, it's for that precise reason that I'm writing about what happened. To have staying power, a restaurant needs to be consistent both in food quality and service. I have no expectations of VIP treatment, but I do expect common courtesy, which, along with the food, I found to be severely lacking. And if I experienced this, I'm certain that others have, too.