El Real Tex-Mex Cafe & Shrine: Revival of the Fittest

Earlier this week, it was reported that Trader Joe's will likely be moving into the old Alabama Theater on West Alabama at Shepherd, thereby saving the old theater from obscurity and possible demolition. It's the latest in a string of good news for Houston's old movie houses, which are as endangered as old-school Tex-Mex once was.

El Real solved both of those dilemmas when owners Robb Walsh, Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd rescued the decaying Tower Theater, built in 1936, and turned it into a shrine to the glory days of vintage Tex-Mex, the days of puffy tacos and stacked enchiladas and refried beans made with sharp, creamy lard.

A few months after opening, the El Real team even renovated the old neon marquee out front, and this formerly dim curve in Montrose suddenly glittered once again under its festive orange and blue lights. Inside, the restaurant glows under brightly painted walls lined with portraits of Tex-Mex high priests and priestesses past.

There's a lot to be said for innovation in Mexican restaurants -- take Hugo's just down the street, the subject of yesterday's 100 Favorite Dishes post -- and the way they skillfully weave new dishes and ingredients into what our "idea" of Mexican food truly is. But there's just as much to be said for a restaurant that embraces one of our most deeply rooted core cuisines and elevates it on a level that would likely give grande dame Diana Kennedy a fit if she ever set foot in the brightly festooned place.

That's Houston for you, and that's Robb Walsh, the Tex-Mex evangelist.

Aside from being an evangelist, Walsh has laughingly referred to himself as the "Tex-Mex apologist" for about five years, ever since a blogger in Portland was quoted as saying, "I know Texans like Robb Walsh try to insist that Velveeta makes good food, but he's just plain wrong. He's drank a little too much of his own Tex-Mex apologist Kool-Aid."

Walsh has chronicled the history of one of America's most enduringly popular regional cuisines for decades, writing three books on the subject in the process. The cuisine, which was first named "Tex-Mex" in 1875, has long been derided by influential figures like Kennedy, but that hasn't deterred Walsh. In fact, he -- along with other food historians -- believes that true Tex-Mex cuisine started up in 1581, making Tex-Mex the country's oldest regional cuisine as well.

It's that deep well of history that Walsh plumbs in El Real, a restaurant with a slavish devotion to giving Tex-Mex the attention and respect that it deserves. And it's no accident that he, Caswell and Floyd housed it in an old building like the imposing Tower Theater.

With those high ceilings, dramatic icons of historic figures lining the walls and grand banks of neon lights, it looks every bit the devout shrine to Tex-Mex it was meant to be.

Read more about El Real in this week's cafe review, and take a trip behind the scenes in our slideshow.

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