If there are two things that serve to immediately dissuade me from trying a restaurant these days, the phrases "167 tequila offerings" and "Washington Avenue" would be those two.
I have nothing personally against either tequila or Washington Avenue, mind you. I just prefer not to fight crowds and traffic and doormen and boozy woo-girls in my quest to have a good dinner.
I'm also not the world's biggest fan of Southwestern cuisine. I fully comprehend that it was groundbreaking when people like Stephan Pyles and our own Robert Del Grande were pioneering the "rustic" cooking style in the mid-1980s, but I am of the solid opinion that it's become dull and uninspired in those nearly 30 years, long overdue for an overhaul. If someone gave me the option between eating at Canyon Cafe, for example, or the godawful Grand Lux just across the parking lot, I would choose Grand Lux, godawful description and all.
Because of all this, I accepted the offer of a media tasting at TQLA (4601 Washington Avenue, 281-501-3237) almost out of a sense of morbid curiosity: What strange wonders would this restaurant hold? Would it re-pique my interest in Southwestern cuisine in even the slightest sense?
What I found as I pored over dish after dish from Chef Tommy Birdwell and two expertly constructed cocktails from partner and tequilier (yes, that's a real title) Scott Lindsey is that not only did I find myself enjoying Southwestern cuisine for one of the first times in my life, but that I was enjoying the restaurant as a whole -- location and all.
TQLA (pronounced "tequila," yes, I know...) has more of a pedigree than one would expect at first glance: Tommy Birdwell, a CIA grad, worked with Stephan Pyles himself on many of his cookbooks and has manned the kitchens at such prestigious places as Coyote Cafe and the Inn of the Anasazi. (Granted, neither of these two stations particularly excited me, but you can't deny the supremely solid Southwestern background that Birdwell brings to the kitchen.)
And that tequilier? He's one of only 40 people in the United States to hold that title, which is supposed to be the equivalent of "master sommelier" with regard to tequila. (Although, in reality, most master sommeliers would argue against the comparison.) When he mixed up an extraordinary añejo Old Fashioned, however, with the aged tequila in place of bourbon, my mind was changed about TQLA's much-touted 167 tequila choices. Suddenly, they didn't all seem lined up behind the bar intended to march into the mouths of maddened twenty-somethings intent on starting their bender at the crimson-hued bar as much as a library of offerings waiting patiently to have a turn to be appreciated in their own, subtle way.
That seems to be TQLA's intention, too, as it offers tequila flights alongside homemade sangrita to refresh the palate in between sips. I recall Bodega's offering something similar when it first opened in the Museum District, only to have the concept fall sadly by the wayside. Here's hoping TQLA won't let that idea flounder, too.
The dishes I enjoyed the most ended up being from the appetizer side of the menu, which Chef Birdwell plans on soon expanding into more of a "small plates" versus "large plates" concept. Although the restaurant has only been open five days, the man already has things he wants done differently. And because the menu is seasonal, that means the juicy jumbo lump crabcake served on gazpacho will soon be replaced with something new. But favorites like the spinach and crawfish enchiladas in a wild mushroom cream sauce and the wild mushroom-goat cheese tamale will remain.
The bone-in ribeye was far too large of a plate for one person to enjoy, leading me to think that most people will be splitting plates. And with already moderate prices like $24.95 for that ribeye or $11.95 for a plate of succulent seared ahi tuna, it's all the better for your wallet if you do.
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The only misstep of the day came in the form of an overly sweet cuatro leches, which I admired in concept if not execution. The fourth milk in the tongue-in-cheek dessert was coconut milk, which overpowered the entire cake with the saccharine taste of Banana Boat sunscreen. Toned down, however, it could be a nice ending to a meal.
My favorite dishes of the entire day, however, were the simplest: the paper-thin tortilla chips that came with a punchy, citrus-tinged tomatillo sauce and a smoky-sweet red sauce that tasted of ancho chiles and tamarind, and a plate of blue cornmeal-crusted Pacific oysters. Plump, fat and running with juice, the beautiful little oysters didn't need any accompaniment other than a quick swipe through the muted yet peppery chorizo cream sauce that pooled beneath them.
The effortlessly chic interior and the reasonable prices, combined with a glamorous bar scene and a tasteful, quirky update on Southwestern cuisine have me believing -- against all my preconceived notions -- that TQLA is going to become a big player on Washington Avenue. My only regret is that I'll have to fight the crowds at night to get back there again.
For more food photos, check out our slideshow.