As often as I feel exhilarated with the state of the food scene in Houston, I feel exasperated just as frequently. Such is life in our city, and you take the good with the bad.
And such is life at Don Julio's, the suburban import Tex-Mex restaurant that just opened last week at Westheimer and Taft, where Tony Vallone's Caffe Bello was unable to break the curse of the La Strada that was there before it. Despite those two restaurants failing miserably in the same locations, early indications are that Don Julio's just might succeed.
I am both happy and sad about this. Happy because it thrilled me to see so many neighborhood residents -- it was mostly Gay Date Night and My Two Dads night this past Friday -- enjoying a meal in a space that was so rarely well-occupied when it was Caffe Bello. And sad because, while Don Julio's is otherwise lovely and inviting, the food is Tex-Mex on mute.
Every dish we ordered that night, with the sole exception of the Texas Mud (more on that in a second), was unremittingly bland and boring. And although the margaritas were good, Houston should expect -- if not demand -- more in its Tex-Mex restaurants. How can we stand for such a dumbing-down of one of our core cuisines?
I don't have many positive things to say about Don Julio's food, so I'll be brief. The pork tamal's masa was overly thick, its pork in rough cubes instead of shredded. The beef taco had no flavor at all, neither shell nor meat. The cheese enchiladas tasted like the ones I used to make in college, all bags of shredded cheese and Walmart-brand tortillas and a can of cheap hot sauce. The chile gravy didn't show any signs meat, let alone of cumin, that most basic of pulses when you're looking for signs of life in Tex-Mex food that seems DOA.
And yet everywhere we looked, people around us were happily inhaling their plates of food and Los Tios-style two-plate dinners. While I might bemoan the loss of those bold, heady flavors in our definitive regional cuisine, who am I to deny these people the enjoyment of what they deem a good meal, whether I find it subjectively "good" or not?
In that sense, it's frustratingly difficult to dislike Don Julio's. It's clearly filling a niche, even after only a week, of providing simple food in a beguilingly semi-upscale setting. It's inoffensive and an easy place to pass the time over chips and salsa and margaritas on the rocks.
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And that Texas Mud, a most unattractively named dish, ended up surprising my dining companion and me despite all the other dismal food. Refried black beans, pico de gallo, garlic-laced guacamole, white queso and taco meat all somehow blended together into a dip that I had never had before in my life, yet somehow reminded me of childhood. It was composed of the kind of foods you grow up eating in Texas before your tastebuds mature and develop into discerning little individuals. It gave a flickering, fleeting sense of home.
Maybe that's why Don Julio's other three locations in the far-out suburbs are always packed, and maybe that's why this one will be too. And I suppose that's fine with me; not every restaurant can be exhilarating. Sometimes, it seems, folks just settle.