First Look at Jimmy Changas

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At 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night, the wait time at Jimmy Changas was already 45 minutes for a two-top. We tried waiting in the bar, but it, too, was jammed full of people. The smart ones had hovered near the stools, waiting for a couple to open up, before lighting on them and immediately ordering enormous plates of fajitas and cheese enchiladas. Everything looked very good, even if we were in Deer Park's version of Chuy's.

I wanted to go to Jimmy Changas because this brand new restaurant concept from the same owners of Gringo's and Bullritos is bound to go "chain" if they get it right...which I'm pretty sure they'll do. Should this location in Pasadena prove itself, prepare to start seeing Jimmy Changas pop up in other places around the city -- younger, more refined sisters to the older brother Gringo's Mexican Kitchens.

And the going is good so far: This is the former location of three failed restaurants, but so far the packed Jimmy Changas shows every sign that it's broken that curse, despite the fact that there are many things to dislike about the place. The food is cheaply and half-heartedly made and -- while some of it is very good -- it's mostly mediocre. The decor verges on garish. And then there's that wait.

But there's just as much to like: Extremely efficient and friendly service, populated almost exclusively by braces-clad high schoolers. Inexpensive prices. A kid-friendly atmosphere that manages to be adult-friendly at the same time, with great margaritas that are far fancier than one would expect. The food won't blow your mind, but it's almost beside the point here.

Once we were finally seated, underneath the cathedral-like ceiling of the main dining room, we eagerly tore into the menu -- a 45-minute wait when you're already starving makes anything look good. My dining companion wanted to test Jimmy Changas' Tex-Mex eggrolls against their counterparts at Gringo's (many of the menu items are carried over from Gringo's, something which instantly puts people at ease).

The eggrolls were just as passable as they've always been, tasting almost exactly like the Chili's southwestern eggrolls save for a side of punchy chipotle dipping sauce that would've perked up a melted tire. Ditto the creamy green sauce with plenty of lime and cilantro that accompanied the chips; Jimmy's definitely gets its sauces right.

Dinner was more hit and miss, however. We both ordered combo plates, so as to get a feel for as many menu items as possible in one visit -- the menu is vast and conquering it one dish at a time would take far more visits than my truck is willing to make to Pearland. My friend's Rio Grande was the better of the two, with tender beef fajitas and a cheese enchilada covered in chile gravy that would have been at home in the best temples of Tex-Mex. Even his guacamole was great, the kind of freshly-made stuff that makes you question why anyone would buy pre-made guac by the tub.

My Del Rio combo plate, however, was pretty dismal despite the promising presence of a tiny monkey head next to it on the menu. "Jimmy's Favorites," you have failed me. My seafood enchilada tasted like a used fishtank and the masa in my pork tamales was mushy, soggy stuff. The accompanying empanadas -- one filled with chorizo and one with cheese -- were so heavily gravid with grease that one bite turned me off food for the rest of the night. Luckily, I'd already eaten the good stuff -- the stuff my friend ordered.

But ultimately, I don't dislike Jimmy Changas, and here's why: This is the kind of place I would have eagerly looked forward to going to as a child. The kind of place I would have been excited to meet my friends at on a Friday night as a teenager. The kind of place I'd enjoy meeting up with other parents at as an adult, enjoying some inexpensive margaritas while the kids play on the playground. It's like Lupe Tortilla went to charm school, a cozy yet grandiose kind of place that will do quite well.

Is it worth the drive from Houston? Absolutely not. But if you're in Pasadena or Deer Park, it's a damn fine choice.

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