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El Gran Malo es La Mas Gran y La Mejor de Gastrocantinas

Does your local Tex-Mex joint have a shrine to tequila?
Does your local Tex-Mex joint have a shrine to tequila?
Photos by Troy Fields

Of course, it's also the only gastrocantina in town. So there's that. But should there eventually one day be many gastrocantinas in Houston, El Gran Malo will still be the Big Bad and the granddaddy of them all.

El Gran Malo's upscale-downmarket amber-hued tequila dive bar concept may be difficult to explain. I find myself describing it in terms of movies I've seen: Like the first time that Clooney and Tarantino walk into the Titty Twister in From Dusk Till Dawn minus the bikers and prostitution, or like being swallowed alive by a less homicidal version of Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre. It's the best way I can think of to describe the boisterously dirty, wonderfully twisted feel of the place.

But just because it's difficult to describe the concept at El Gran Malo doesn't mean I can't see it being replicated by less inventive but more capitalism-minded copy-catters somewhere down the line. As with Sammy's Wild Game Grill and Moon Tower Inn, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and El Gran Malo's infused tequilas and chef-driven, modern Tex-Mex menu is ripe for the flattering.

El Gran Malo's mural was painted by local artist Kevin Hernandez.
El Gran Malo's mural was painted by local artist Kevin Hernandez.

It's more difficult for me to see anyone accurately copying what El Gran Malo has going on with its tequilas, however. As Shea Serrano wrote back in September:

The thing you eventually notice about [El Gran Malo] 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.

A trio of tacos.
A trio of tacos.

Owners Steve Sharma, Dimitre Dimitrov and Lea McKinney are devoted to these tequilas in a way I can't see a more commercialized version of El Gran Malo being. The creations they concoct are inspired -- witness a recent hop-infused tequila whose popularity led to a tequila-beer dinner with Saint Arnold providing the hops -- and grounded at the same time. Although beets may not sound good in tequila, you have to trust El Gran Malo -- and me -- when we promise that they are.

I suspect I'll have less trouble convincing people of the majesty of the rugged torta-burger, especially when topped with a fried egg and pork belly. Either way, El Gran Malo is slyly introducing a more modern version of Tex-Mex into our everyday vocabulary, and reintroducing a generation to what tequila should and can taste like. And those are small but wonderful discoveries that can't ever be replicated.

Read more about El Gran Malo in this week's cafe review, then dive head-first into the Lotería-card look of the place.



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