Southwest on Washington
See more photos from TQLA's dining room, kitchen and its vast tequila selection in our slideshow.
Any apprehensions I may have initially felt about a restaurant called TQLA (pronounced, yes, as "tequila") located right in the thick of clubby Washington Avenue melted completely away with each successive meal at the on-point Southwestern restaurant run by veteran chef Tommy Birdwell.
Birdwell and his team moved here from Dallas (one apprehension) back in November, with the intentions of opening a restaurant that would also feature a bar with 167 tequila choices (another apprehension). Neither tequila (the drink) nor the restaurant's address on Washington Avenue have had the most successful PR campaigns, as it were, in the last few years. And the last thing a Houstonian like myself is generally interested in is an import from our big-haired sister up north.
Yet over three meals, I've become more and more besotted with the place, even with its vast tequila selection and the creative uses which partner and tequilier — the tequila version of a sommelier — Scott Lindsey has found for the Mexican spirit. Consider the añejo Old Fashioned, which I've sipped several times now as a post-dinner replacement for a sugary dessert: aged tequila taking the place of bourbon in the classic cocktail, simple syrup and Angostura bitters somehow pairing even more effortlessly with the tequila than with bourbon. I know this sounds like heresy, but as long as my glass of heresy is garnished with twists of lemon and orange — every bit an Old Fashioned except for the liquor — I'm perfectly okay with that.
And in a city where we've become unaccustomed to Southwestern flavors since the gradual decline of the cuisine somewhere around the mid-1990s, TQLA's menu is full of unexpectedly delicious offerings just like that añejo Old Fashioned. Pumpkin seed-crusted salmon with green chile mashed potatoes made my entire week one recent evening after a parade of lackluster meals elsewhere around town.
While the dish isn't cheap — nearing $17 — it almost seemed a bargain when it landed in front of me, a piece of fresh salmon nearly the size of a carburetor swaggering atop a pile of skin-on, roughly mashed potatoes that matched the salmon's macho attitude. I was pleased to find the salmon cooked perfectly, still a blushing, coral pink all the way through, with a generous portion of sweet peppers on top that balanced out the pepitas that clung thickly to one side of the fish. Those pepitas — pumpkin seeds — are a common Southwestern ingredient, as are the green chiles in the mashed potatoes, that you rarely run across on Houston menus. And while I wasn't initially inclined to re-embrace Southwestern food after a long absence of truly good Southwestern restaurants, TQLA has brought me back into the fold.
The green chiles that studded the mashed potatoes were so good, in fact, it was all I could do to keep my dining companion off them. We both took greedy, gulping bites of the potatoes (the splash of tangy tequila-lime butter on top only making us greedier) until not even a trace was left. The same thing happened to the cornmeal-crusted fried green tomatoes on the side and, ultimately, to the salmon itself. A clean plate at a restaurant, especially when the portions are this big, is rare.
That's not to say all the portions are this massive. Which is good, too, as it wouldn't quite fit with the clean flavors and relatively healthy feel of many of TQLA's menu items.
The chicken enchiladas, for example, are short and sweet on the plate: two enchiladas covered with a vivid salsa verde that sings brightly amidst piles of swarthy poblano peppers and caramelized onions. I wished the chicken inside had been shredded instead of roughly torn into large chunks that were too difficult to cut with a fork, but found no fault with the punchy black beans or tangy cilantro rice that came on the side.
The pork carnitas, too, feature only two tacos per plate (served with those same rice and beans), but are stuffed with strands of shredded pork — some fine and wispy, some thick and moist — that carry a distinctly sweet, almost herbal flavor that I couldn't pin down. I reveled in the tacos' toppings, too: chopped cilantro and onions along with caramelized onions, a crumbling of queso fresco and a squeeze of lime. It was almost exactly what would have been handed down from the window at El Ultimo, my favorite taco truck in town, were El Ultimo in the business of sit-down meals with tequila flights.
One evening, I was just as excited to find that TQLA does burgers, too, as skillfully as it does enchiladas and tacos. Nothing makes me happier than receiving a medium-rare burger cooked exactly that way, cutting it in half and allowing the juices to flood the bun with flavor. The ooze factor is upped significantly here on Bert's green chile burger with the addition of jalapeño-flecked cheese and broad, creamy slices of avocado. And while the accompanying shoestring-style fries were listless and largely flavorless, the burger was so good that I wouldn't have wanted to waste the stomach space on them anyway.
TQLA's dining room certainly looks the part of an upscale, trend-focused Washington Avenue destination, all fiery tones and copper sculptures affixed to the high ceilings. And while certain of the clientele absolutely look — especially on a Saturday night — as if they're heading to Reign or Privilege afterward, the vibe is welcoming and casual.
I've yet to have a waiter who wasn't personable and highly knowledgeable about the menu as well as the tequilas. They're quick and happy to recommend certain margaritas, cocktails or flights, excitedly pointing out the draft system which keeps at least seven tequilas on tap at all times, chilled to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. A flight is the easiest — and cheapest, at just under $14 — way to experience this system, especially if you're seated in the large bar area. I do wish that TQLA would keep less obvious choices on draft — Don Julio, El Jimador and Corzo are all fairly common — as a means of really encouraging patrons to branch out and consider tequila as something more than just a shot taken off someone's bare stomach. But I do appreciate seeing locals like Riazul on draft, just as I'm happy to see brews like Saint Arnold and Southern Star at traditional bars.
Appetizers are the way to go when sitting in the bar, and the rich guacamole fresca is a favorite. Calamari La Paz has potential — even more so when swiped through the eye-rollingly good ancho chile sauce that comes with it — but the squid are lost under too much batter. Order the light, fresh, unfussy guacamole with its roughly diced squares of avocado and tiny burn from the serrano chiles hidden throughout. It's a wonderful pairing with the twin salsas that come with the paper-thin tortilla chips: one bright green and citrusy, the other dusky and sweeter than expected thanks to the ancho chiles and tamarind within.
And while I have some concerns that TQLA might not be taken as seriously as it should because of its name, and because of its location, I'm somewhat selfishly all right with this: It means I won't have to fight a crowd at night when I'm craving a stellar bowl of guacamole and thoughtful, high-quality, skillfully executed Southwestern food.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.