More Than Just Tequila at TQLA

I feel like TQLA -- the subject of this week's cafe review -- hasn't gotten the fairest of shakes. Yes, it's named after a beverage that most people associate with Spring Breaks spent partly in Matamoros. Yes, it's on ultra-clubby Washington Avenue.

But despite all of these things, I find myself enjoying TQLA more and more with every meal. The service is outstanding. The margaritas are, naturally, top-notch. The atmosphere is casually upscale, certainly ideal for date nights but also for having a few drinks and appetizers with friends. Parking is incredibly easy (and free) thanks to the attached garage.

And, most importantly, the food is wonderful.

I shouldn't be surprised, and I'm not. Chef Tommy Birdwell has a hell of a pedigree, having graduated from the CIA and worked with master of Southwestern cuisine Stephan Pyles on many of Pyles's cookbooks. He's also manned the kitchens at prestigious places such as Coyote Cafe and the Inn of the Anasazi. You can't say his background isn't rock-solid.

What I was surprised to find in TQLA was a restaurant that fully supports Birdwell's cuisine from top to bottom, from atmosphere to service. And as much emphasis is put onto the drinks here as the food, thanks to tequila expert Scott Lindsey, who's also one of TQLA's partners.

The entire concept could come across as stilted and corny and smacking of effort, but it never does. Instead, you find yourself eagerly exploring interesting añejo tequilas amidst skillfully constructed dishes like spinach and crawfish enchiladas in a wild mushroom cream sauce -- activities and flavors blend easily with one another, and before you know it, you've just had a hell of a night and a hell of a meal.

Even if you have to brave the hellish Washington Avenue traffic for a meal, TQLA is worth it.

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Katharine Shilcutt