We had to pick up our chips and salsa and move our margaritas to make room when the waiter tried to park the monstrous, sizzling comal on our tabletop. It was well worth the trouble.
The parrillada especial at El Jardin on Harrisburg was a mountain of firm but tender grilled beef fajita strips, slices of chicken breast, and grilled pork that had been marinated in New Mexican-style adovada sauce — all on a bed of caramelized onions. Sitting upright with their tails in the air around the perimeter of the platter were six enormous grilled shrimp.
A plate of guacamole, lettuce, tomato, lime wedges and two plastic warmers containing an assortment of corn and hand-made flour tortillas were served on the side. The grill special was advertised as a dinner for four, but four of us couldn't come close to finishing it. It could easily have fed six.
The cover of El Jardin's menu touted their "fajitas, margaritas and shrimp." After two visits, I had to agree that grilled meats and potent frozen margs were the things the restaurant did best. The charred meats had a wonderful hot-off-the-grill texture rather than the sogginess you get when the restaurant holds its grilled meats in a steam table. The frozen margaritas were so cold, you could stick a straw in the middle of the beer mug and it would stay upright indefinitely. There was plenty of lime juice in the slushy blend, and not too much sugar.
But it's not the quality of the food and drinks that makes El Jardin so much fun to visit. What really gets your attention are the bizarre location and the riotous decor.
Cranes towering above docked ships come into view as you drive east down Harrisburg. El Jardin is very close to the "Marine Park" section of the ship channel near Navigation. There are a lot of little "nite clubs" for sailors with signs in Spanish along the street. I liked the one advertising a nightly "bickiny contest."
"It's like you're not even in Houston anymore," one friend observed, looking around the neighborhood. The proliferation of carnicerías, taquerías, tortillerías and tricycle cart vendors selling Mexican candy give the area an exotic feel.
I drove down to the dock closest to Harrisburg to see what was going on. It was a surreal nighttime scene. Under blindingly bright lights, the cranes were loading ugly bales of scrap metal and crushed automobiles onto rusty freighters. "Are we in the Second Ward or the Third World?" I asked my passenger.
El Jardin turned out to be a lot larger than I expected, and it was topped with an unlikely pointed dome — like a Tex-Mex mosque. The carved wooden doors are adorned with parrots. Inside, some of the walls at this unrelentingly colorful restaurant are painted bright yellow with blue trim, the columns are hot pink and the cashier stand is Day-Glo orange.
The high-backed rope-seat chairs are actually made out of plastic. They're decorated with elaborate patterns and big, anthropomorphic suns. Talavera plates line the upper walls, and the ceiling is strung with cut-paper pennants. There's a mural on the back wall depicting a mercado on the streets of a Mexican village. If there's an undecorated square inch of wall space at El Jardin, I couldn't find it.
El Jardin was one of only three restaurants in the entire state that were mentioned in Joe Drape's article "A Celebration of Tex-Mex, Without Apology" in The New York Times food section last month. The other two were Herrera's in Dallas and El Mirador in San Antonio.
The article was criticized by Texas food writers, bloggers and assorted wags. (I was quoted a lot, so consider me biased.) There were some snarky comments about Drape's knowledge of women's footwear (don't ask). And there was much whining from Austin because the little city that wants to be weird wasn't mentioned. And then there was some second-guessing about the three restaurants the author chose to represent Tex-Mex.
No one questioned the choice of Herrera's Café, an old Tex-Mex institution in Dallas. Drape dug into a nostalgic combination plate there that recalled his days in Dallas as a college student and later a sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News.
The inclusion of El Mirador in San Antonio drew more fire. Drape ate homemade mole enchiladas there and wrote about the Mexican soups that are served on Saturday mornings. The Trevino family thinks they are serving authentic Mexican food. Maybe they are; maybe they aren't. But it might have been wise to avoid the argument at a self-avowed San Antonio Tex-Mex institution like Blanco Café, Henry's Puffy Tacos or Brown's Mexican Foods.
When Drape told me on the phone that his restaurant choice in Houston was El Jardin, I had to admit I had never heard of the place. Alison Cook, who lives on the East Side, said in her blog that she knows it well but seldom goes there. Sylvia's, Irma's or Spanish Flower would have been better choices in her book.
In light of the debate, I thought it would be an ideal time to go review the place.
Joe Drape ordered the #16 lunch special at El Jardin, three pork tamales topped with chili gravy and served with rice and beans. Tamales in chili gravy is very characteristic of old-fashioned Tex-Mex. In fact, Walker's Austex once sold the combination of "red hot tamales with chile gravy" in a can.
On my first visit to El Jardin, I wanted to see what Drape was thinking. So my dining companion and I tried some old-fashioned Tex-Mex plates. She got the Jardin Deluxe. The first plate was a lame preformed crispy taco and a puffy tostada with average chile con queso poured over the top. There was also some guacamole. The hot plate had one cheese enchilada and one pork tamal under chili gravy with more cheese on top and some rice and beans on the side.
I got the number two dinner. It featured a bad ground-beef taco on the salad plate and two cheese enchiladas beside a tamal on the hot plate. The tamales were stuffed with big chunks of meat, but they weren't very soft. The chili gravy was a darker brown than usual, with a meatier flavor. The cheese enchiladas were average. All in all, I found the old-fashioned Tex-Mex at El Jardin disappointing.
On her blog, Alison Cook fantasized about taking Joe Drape around Houston and introducing him to some real classic Tex-Mex joints. I have been fantasizing about taking him all over the state to see how good old-fashioned Tex-Mex can be.
I know that preformed taco shells have been the standard since the 1950s, but frankly, they suck. I'd like to give Drape a fresh-fried taco at Henry's Puffy Tacos in San Antonio, followed by an old-fashioned taco hot off the griddle at Matt's El Rancho in Austin.
Then I'd take him down to Larry's in Richmond for a cheese enchilada stuffed with processed cheese. Cheddar doesn't bleed into the gravy the way Velveeta does. I love the combination of chili gravy and gooey yellow cheese that's left behind on the plate. If you are going to eat old-fashioned Tex-Mex, why not go all the way?
Drape told me that it was a friend of his who lives in the neighborhood who recommended El Jardin, and in the end, I don't really disagree with his buddy's choice. Sure, Irma's and Ninfa's on Navigation and lots of smaller places are more charming. But are they really typical of Houston Tex-Mex?
I like the "everyman" quality of El Jardin, and I get a big kick out of the over-the-top decorating style. Plus I love the idea of taking out-of-towners down to the waterfront, since most of us forget we even have a waterfront.
El Jardin is a lovably goofy joint that represents Houston Tex-Mex better than most. Go check it out for yourself — it's a scenic drive. Forget the combination plates and the crispy tacos. I recommend the margaritas, the fajitas and the huge shrimp — just like it says on the front of the menu.
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