"We had 1,000 covers on Friday night, then 1,200 covers last night," an exhausted but happy-looking Bill Floyd told me when he stopped by our table at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe on Sunday evening. It was a little past 5 p.m., the doors to the place had just opened, and although the dining room wasn't packed yet, it was quickly becoming a wild rush of wide-eyed diners and scurrying waiters.
Floyd and his partners -- Chef Bryan Caswell and former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh -- were working the room, stopping by each and every table to check on meals and margaritas. Walsh made a brief run by our table with a bowl of shockingly orange salsa in hand. "This is for the people who think the regular salsa is too wimpy," he deadpanned as he dropped it next to the regular house salsa.
I'm not one of the people who finds the salsa at El Real too wimpy, however. "It tastes like it has beef tallow in it!" I marveled to my boyfriend, who -- like me -- is a product of the old-school Tex-Mex places that El Real is [so far, successfully] attempting to emulate. It makes sense, after all, that "Tex-Mex apologist" Walsh should be the one to bring the genre back to its roots after decades of dilution, negligence and incompetence has reduced Tex-Mex to a cuisine that Diana Kennedy considered a bastardization. Walsh told us that El Real roasts all the peppers and tomatoes for the salsa daily and that delightfully deep, meaty flavor comes from a combination of the roasted vegetables and the chipotle peppers in adobo that are added in.
No, it isn't spicy. But neither was old-school Tex-Mex. If you're looking for a place to burn your lips off, don't look to El Real. But if you're looking to burrow into a plate of cheese enchiladas that taste like childhood, look no further.
For now, it seems, most of the people that are flocking to El Real -- the restaurant did 500 covers alone last Friday, on its "soft-opening" -- are there for the old-school Tex-Mex. And that's good. I've seen reviews on sites like Yelp and comments on Twitter referencing people's confusion over what they thought would be a more progressive restaurant, perhaps because Bryan Caswell is involved. But El Real was meant to be a throwback from its earliest conception.
"A lot of the menu items will be stuff that hasn't been seen on Tex-Mex menus in a long time," Walsh told me back in November. "We're looking back to the old Gebhardt cookbooks from 1917 and all kinds of old menus." And, of course, to rendered lard.
The kitchen has nearly wiped out Revival Market's supply of lard in the week that it's been open. The lard that El Real renders is added to its refried beans, giving them a viscerally different taste that's deeply animalistic and vaguely feral. Rendered lard tastes like barnyard animal, there's no mistaking it. And, to quote my boyfriend, "It's a taste our palates have become unaccustomed to over the last 20 years." I suspect people will either love or hate the beans upon first taste. But I also suspect that if they give them another try, they'll quickly grow to love that rich, meaty taste.
The bland rice, however... Walsh says they're working on it. And aside from wishing that the buttery tacos al carbon came with sides of sour cream, pico and guac, that's my only complaint. The frozen margaritas ($7.25) had a nicely balanced sour-sweet tang that almost tasted like there was a hint of warm vanilla in there somewhere. The guacamole ($4.95 for a very small bowl) was just salty enough, brightened with tomatoes and garlic. The tamale on my Original Dinner plate ($12.95, with two cheese enchiladas) was thickly encased in soft, rich masa and the meat inside parted easily under my fork.
The cheese enchiladas and tacos al carbon ($12.95), however, were on another plane entirely. The chile sauce on the enchiladas with made with chile powder that El Real makes themselves daily, toasting cuminos and making a dusky red sauce that's sweetly earthy. The cheese inside is perfectly melty, perfectly gooey, perfectly...well...cheesy, and with nary a trace of grease around the plate. The meat in the tacos al carbon was cooked to a tender medium with hints of pink in the middle, the steak gently oozing buttery juices into the tortilla wrapped around it and soaking it nearly through. And while we didn't order the famous Felix-inflected queso, there's no escaping the old restaurant's influence: all of the chairs came from Felix, after all.
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It's clear that Walsh, Caswell and Floyd have greater expectations for El Real than just a simple Tex-Mex restaurant on Westheimer. From the glass-encased relics of Tex-Mex years gone by (an entire case of which was donated by former EOW blogger Jay Francis) to the patently eye-catching merchandise for sale by the front door, an empire is on its way to being built. And although this is only the first El Real, the No. 7 painted on the side of the building attests to the possibility of six more El Reals cropping up in years to come.
For now, though, it's enough to just watch old Mexican westerns on the movie wall that claims a giant portion of the south side of the building (retaining the Tower Theater aspect was Caswell's idea) and be charmed by the mesquite-grilled meats and cheese-laden enchiladas that are coming out of the busy kitchen. While this El Real may be the first of many, this landmark return to form is blissfully ours for the moment.