"You have to give people what they're interested in eating," Robb Walsh laughed over the phone. "Fajitas will be very well represented on our menu." Wise words that should quell any concerns Houstonians may have had about the joint venture between Walsh -- former Houston Press food critic and author of The Tex-Mex Cookbook -- and the men behind Reef and Little Big's: Bill Floyd and Chef Bryan Caswell, who currently can be seen competing on The Next Iron Chef.
To some, it seemed like an odd romance: a former food critic going into the restaurant business? A staunch defender of old-school Tex-Mex food partnering with a pioneer of modern Gulf Coast cuisine? One of the city's most beloved food figures in bed with one of its most controversial? Sparks were sure to fly regardless of a good or bad outcome.
The restaurant -- whose name was revealed today to be El Real Tex-Mex Cafe -- has more than just a big-name partnership to live up to. Housed in the old Tower Theater on lower Westheimer, the iconic location was last home to a Hollywood Video and bears very little resemblance inside to its former life. Walsh aims to revive the past at El Real, but in a different way: through vintage Tex-Mex.
What is vintage Tex-Mex? "Poached eggs in chile con carne," according to Walsh. Items like puffy tacos from San Antonio or Tex-Mex seafood from Brownsville. "A lot of the menu items will be stuff that hasn't been seen on Tex-Mex menus in a long time," he said. "We're looking back to the old Gebhardt cookbooks from 1917 and all kinds of old menus."
What else is vintage Tex-Mex to Walsh? Lard. Lots and lots of lard.
"In the old days," he began, always the storyteller, "Tex-Mex was made with lard. And before there was hydrogenated lard in the store, it was made with fresh rendered lard. It has this wonderful roasted pork flavor, you know?" But everything good eventually comes to an end, and the era of lard was no exception. "Tex-Mex restaurants were inspired by Taco Bell. And in the era when everyone wanted to go out in their cars to eat, they were competing with hamburger stands. Making things faster and less expensive, using things like pre-formed taco shells."
As he consults on the menu and recipes for El Real, Walsh aims to bring back seriously old-school Tex-Mex in ways no other restaurant is currently doing. "I can't think of any other restaurant that uses rendered lard," he asserted. Along with Caswell, they've contacted Morgan Weber at Revival Meats to see about using the lard left over from the butchering and sale of Weber's increasingly popular heritage pigs.
In these early stages of the restaurant's development, some menu items are sure to change, but Walsh is steadfast that El Real will be a return to authentic, original Tex-Mex cuisine, "approached from a point of view of respect and love." Despite the ultra-modern cuisine served up at Reef, it's an attitude shared by Caswell, who became even more fascinated by the cuisine after reading Walsh's rather exhaustive book on the subject.
"He and Bill very much wanted to do a Tex-Mex place," Walsh explained. "He read the cookbook and he's a C.I.A. grad, and I put forth the idea to him that this is a regional cuisine. He wanted to do this place as a Tex-Mex restaurant, but a purer concept that's about Tex-Mex as an American regional cuisine. It's grounded in history. Since I knew the history, it made sense to have me on board to define the concept."
That concept is more than just a restaurant, however. The upstairs balcony of the old theater will be transformed into a private dining area that will also host a collection of Tex-Mex memorabilia from old menus to sugar bowls from the Original Mexican Restaurant, which opened in San Antonio in 1899. It's a collection that Walsh aims to turn into a de facto museum on the subject, with himself as avid curator.
"Frank Mancuso from the Saint Arnold Brewery in Austin donated a calendar from Leo's showing Leo and Pancho Villa autographed by Leo," he explained excitedly. "And I just bought an old Freddy Fender album called Tex-Mex on eBay."
The upstairs dining room-cum-museum will have a seating for about 75, but that could change. The entire restaurant is aiming for a capacity of 150 to 175, including a planned patio on the sidewalk. Inside, expect re-caned chairs from the now-closed Felix down the street (which will soon host a Houston version of Uchi if all goes according to plan).
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As to what else to expect from the infant restaurant, which just got its construction permit from the City of Houston, Walsh indicates that some of the menu items might be surprising: "Most of us just know our hometown Tex-Mex." He aims to change that. "We're also borrowing classic Tex-Mex that isn't from Houston. There's a chain in South Texas called Blue Shell that does Tex-Mex seafood. Many people don't think of Tex-Mex and seafood, but it's all over the state. Fish a la plancha, shrimp with bacon, caldo de mariscos," he continued as he rattled off the names of dishes he hopes to include.
If there's one thing Walsh is passionate about, it's changing the perception of Tex-Mex food that's held not only by Texans, but by America at large. "There's this idea that Tex-Mex is pure Mexican food being screwed up by a bunch of dumb gringos in Texas," he lamented. "But there were Spanish-speaking Texans in the 1700s. The idea that Tex-Mex is bad Mexican food has been spread by people who are in favor of some kind of Mexican purity. People like Diana Kennedy and Craig Claiborne thought of Tex-Mex as bastardized Mexican food, Gustavo Arellano said that Tex-Mex food was so mongrelized it wasn't even recognizable, but now we talk about it as a bicultural hybrid. We talk about food in terms of reproduction and marriage: bastard, mongrel, hybrid."
"The change in the way that we look at hybridized food reflects a more accepting way of looking at multicultural marriage. Now, when a gringo and a Mexican get married, no one cares. There was a time when both sets of parents would have been concerned. Our acceptance of all kinds of natural fusions has grown."
Walsh hopes to see El Real open by the spring, but -- he added with a laugh -- it's always smart to tack six months on to any restaurant's expected opening date. There are still contractors to nail down, after all, and many months of renovation and hiring that lay ahead. But as to what Houstonians should look forward to in the spring, if El Real manages to bloom by that time: "Great frozen margaritas, great chips, great salsa," Walsh exhorted. "And the same prices as any other Tex-Mex place."