Check out El Gran Malo's colorful mural and tequila shrine for yourself.
On a Sunday night in November, half the city was watching the Houston Dynamo play their toughest against — and ultimately lose to — the L.A. Galaxy in the final game of the MLS Cup. I was, too, although I wasn't watching at a rowdy sports bar or from my own couch at home — I was watching the match at El Gran Malo along with a Bloody Maria made with beef jerky-infused tequila and tomatillos, and a massive beef torta with a fried egg on top. Most of the kitchen crew was lined up along the window into the kitchen, intentionally watching between orders. El Gran Malo may not be the first spot I'd recommend for a televised sporting event, but that night it felt perfect.
There was an affinity that night between the bartenders, the kitchen crew, the waitresses and the patrons as we all watched, transfixed, although I did notice the sadly underseasoned beef in the otherwise excellent torta that night, the patty in desperate need of at least some salt.
Normally, the torta here is a rather remarkable thing, both burger and torta all in one. And though it's clearly terrible for you — especially once you really get going and start stacking fried eggs and crispy pork belly and salty chorizo between the craggy beef patty and the soft telera bread — I find myself craving it at all hours of the day, and pondering the idea that every burger would be exponentially better with hefty amounts of crema and poblano peppers on top. (They would, too.)
El Gran Malo may be better known for its vast tequila selection and house-infused spirits right now, but if the kitchen keeps turning out creations like the Angus beef torta, it'll soon be equally famous for its food. The restaurant seems eager to take that path, too, with a menu designed by chef Greg Lowry (formerly of Voice, soon to be chef de cuisine at Triniti) and an initial press release that described the place as a "gastrocantina."
There have been a few other gastrocantinas in the country prior to El Gran Malo, but I get the feeling that Gran Malo is the only place to really get the concept right so far. It's a silly portmanteau, to be sure, but it's the closest thing I've found to accurately describe the bent of a restaurant that's part dive bar, part modern Tex-Mex, part cocktail mecca, part locavore haven, part craft beer purveyor and part neighborhood hangout, seeming to actively and audaciously defy labeling.
My first visit to El Gran Malo was a whirlwind friends-and-family night, where the owners had invited regular patrons of their other establishment — the purposely under-the-radar Dirt Bar — and nearby residents of its Timbergrove neighborhood to see exactly what a gastrocantina is.
That same dark-and-divey Dirt Bar aesthetic had gotten a bit spiffed up here, with a wickedly glowing shrine to tequila decorating one broad wall and a Kevin Hernandez mural of Lotería cards, luchadores and the Virgen herself on another. The waitresses were decked out in cheeky punk rock chic, rumbling from one table to the next like derby girls. Shots of tequila were passed around tables one after another, gulped down as fast as a waitress could describe the various infusions: "That one's habanero-ginger, and that one's cucumber-mint." The red lights and close quarters and manic energy made it feel like being swallowed alive by a Mexican traveling circus, tattooed women and all.
And although I loved the blatantly surreal feeling of the place, I wasn't as impressed with the food. The ceviche had barely been marinated and the corn tortillas of the tacos fell apart under the weight of some rather bland snapper and chicken inside. "I'll come back here for the tequila," I thought to myself. "But not the food."
Less than a month later, I was back. For tequila, mostly. I wanted to try the increasingly fascinating infusions that owners Dimitre Dimitrov, Steve Sharma and Lea McKinney had been creating. Dimitrov told me about the infusions that had worked — red and golden beet, for example, and more traditional flavors like strawberry and mango — and those that hadn't, like a too-delicate starfruit infusion that was lost in the flavor of the tequila. Not all of the infusions work, after all — and not all of them are for every palate, either. But when they do, they make some of the most miraculous margaritas in town, like the "thymus" infusion of fresh thyme and other herbs that results in a brisk, clean, grassy flavor that complements the floral notes in the tequila itself.
I casually ordered a few tacos to soak up the margaritas, and was floored to find the boring tacos from a month ago replaced by respectable ones, double-wrapped in hot corn tortillas and plump with Victoria beer-marinated carnitas, scallions, cilantro and red onions.
But it was the pleasantly fatty, crispy and caramel-tinged pork belly marinated in Mexican Coca-Cola with pickled red onions and peanuts that sent me over the edge. I hadn't given El Gran Malo a fair shake the first time around on that whirlwind night, and was reeling to find the food so improved in such a short amount of time.
On a third visit, I found the chicken tinga tacos equally impressive, the chicken moist and smoky from a braise of chipotle peppers in adobo, the soft shreds of meat topped with sweet, crunchy pepitas. The toasted pumpkin seeds were a departure from the standard cilantro y cebollo you'd see on a street taco like this, and a pleasant one. Those same clever, modern touches are also in dishes like the tamales al chipotle, where a dusky chipotle sauce under those warm tamales elevates the old standard in a way that both considers the provenance of the food and pushes it forward along a similar, enlightened path. They're thoughtful additions that enhance the food, and are never avant-garde purely for the sake of it.
I love the direction of this modern Tex-Mex movement in Houston, also seen at places like Xuco Xicana, and the fact that El Gran Malo is so gloriously understated in their interpretation of it. Prices are reasonable here, the restaurant is welcoming, the service relaxed and friendly. Menus are crumpled into silver containers on the tables along with silverware, the tables surrounded by charmingly mismatched chairs.
Despite the casual vibe, you will pay a little more for your tacos here than you would at Tacos Tierra Caliente, but they're made with better ingredients and in more inventive combinations than you'll find elsewhere. Plus, the more serrano-marinated red snapper tacos you order at once, the cheaper they are: One taco is $3.95, but you can mix-and-match five for $16.95.
By the time I made my last visit to El Gran Malo, the place had started to feel like an old friend.
I started seeing familiar faces behind the bar — former Voice sommelier Todd Leveritt is there some nights, creating masterful concoctions like that addictive tomatillo-and-beef-jerky-tequila Bloody Maria — and I had already ticked off most of the tequila infusions on my list. I was pleased to see that in addition to the mural being nearly completed, another piece of local painter Kevin Hernandez's artwork was hung, too: a shrewd send-up of Magritte's The Son of Man, with a sombrero in place of a bowler hat and a lime in place of an apple.
Older couples from the neighborhood were enjoying dinner in the main dining room, which is barely recognizable from its days as Heights West save the icehouse-style doors that are permanently rolled closed. Young hipsters clustered at the dark bar, the bottles of booze lit by colorful LED strips that co-owner Lea McKinney installed herself. The patio had been enlarged and was decorated with papel picado and fairy lights, inviting if it weren't so cold outside. Although it had only been four months since it opened, El Gran Malo already seemed to have settled into its skin.
My girlfriends and I eagerly tore into the menu, ordering nearly every small bite all at once and the night's special, flautas. I'm sure that El Gran Malo gets more than a few complaints that its chips and salsa are $4.95, but the salsas are almost worth the price, especially the Chuy's-esque jalapeño-ranch dip that no sane person can resist. Besides, when the rest of the food is this good, you don't want to spend all your stomach space on chips and salsa.
We eagerly gobbled up empanadas filled with plantains, black beans, poblano peppers and stretchy, melty layers of cotija cheese, dipping the lightly charred flour tortillas into a bright, tangy tomatillo salsa. We fought over the beautifully plated chicken-filled tamales whose masa was far too thick, but also too velvety smooth for me to complain too much. And while my friends enjoyed a plate of diablos al caballo — goat cheese-and-gorgonzola-stuffed jalapeños — the smoky bacon wrapper and sweet melon sauce on the pepper I picked off the plate couldn't extinguish the astonishing amount of heat coming off the little white seeds inside. I'd somehow gotten the super-heated one of the bunch, but enjoyed it regardless.
We even appreciated the decent ceviche that — while not perfect — was a vast improvement over the version I had on my first visit. The fish was now a bit too marinated, but the bright, nose-clearing smashes of serrano peppers and aji amarillo were almost good enough to make up for the slightly mushy fish.
At the beginning of dinner, I'd shaken off the cold with a Dark & Earthy, El Gran Malo's twist on a Dark & Stormy using beet-infused tequila in place of dark rum.
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"We ran out of the red beet-infused tequila," the bartender told me when I'd ordered it. A grin crossed my face as it dawned on me that other people were enjoying the beet-infused tequila as much as I had been, the softness of the root vegetables entirely canceling out any harshness of the spirit and instead enhancing the agave's own natural sweetness. "We only have golden beet left." Which was equally fine with me, and made for a stunning, topaz-colored cocktail whose gentle color belied the kick from the ginger beer inside.
By dinner's end, I was nursing a white sangria for dessert, fat blueberries floating on top as I considered the exceptional range of both El Gran Malo's kitchen and bar, both divey and endlessly, effortlessly creative at the same time. "It's like eating dinner at Grand Prize," noted one of my friends. "If Grand Prize had awesome food."
What do you call a place that serves goat cheese-stuffed jalapeños with a melon gastrique alongside cocktails made with beet-infused tequila and ginger beer? Do you call it a gastrocantina? No. You call it El Gran Malo, and you simply enjoy it for what it is.