Review: El Big Bad Has Captured Most of the Best From El Gran Malo

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The "Spicy, Smoky, Sticky Ribs" exceeded its promises. The Berkshire ribs, coated in a sauce with smoked Morita chiles, rice wine vinegar and piloncillo sugar, were perfectly tender. The heat from the chiles grew but never became unbearable, and the sauce had a deep, bittersweet character reminiscent of black mole. It's rare that a light sprinkle of sesame seeds makes a big difference, but in this dish, they added visual interest and texture.

We were at El Big Bad on Travis, the surviving sister restaurant of El Gran Malo, the irreverent luchador- and wolf-themed hangout on Ella that closed its doors (in no small part due to complex City of Houston permitting issues relating to the patio and parking). If you're looking for a place with haute cuisine, you're howling up the wrong tree here. El Big Bad serves a wealth of fun appetizers and excels at hearty, comforting entrées. There's room for improvement: A few dishes need work, and they seem to be rationing tortillas.

Yet there are standouts to be had -- among them a hearty pozole and an ever-changing ceviche that's always made with market-fresh ingredients. It's a funky, endearing locale, a good place to hang out with friends, nosh on homestyle, Mexican-inspired food and drink crazy infused tequilas. It would be tough to find a more fun environment in which to eat in Houston.

For fans of El Gran Malo, its offshoot El Big Bad was initially a bit of a head scratcher. Its first concept chef was Randy Rucker, and the first head chef was Ben Rabbani. Both are best known for Rucker's acclaimed establishment, Bootsie's, which specialized in Third Coast cuisine and local (sometimes even foraged) ingredients. It was a mystery, though, as to how their culinary perspectives were going to mesh with El Gran Malo's hearty, rib-sticking fare.

In the end, it was just a mismatch between what the chefs wanted to execute and what the restaurant needed. Sometimes you have to give the people what they want, and what visitors to El Big Bad wanted was to have the taste of El Gran Malo back.

As the saying goes, the third time's the charm. There's not much serendipity in the restaurant industry, but landing chef Jonathan Jones was a stroke of good fortune for El Big Bad indeed.

Jones first wowed diners at Max's Wine Dive and Beaver's with playful, hearty, boundless fare like po-boys on deep-fried baguettes, giant hot dogs with venison chili, honey-dipped fried chicken and chicken-fried New York strip steaks that rode high and proud on mounds of sweet-potato mash. His later endeavors, Xuco Xicana and Concepción, were each woefully short-lived, despite Jones's excellent food. Critical acclaim and social media groupies couldn't save either place. Either way, the loss of Jones's tangy, balanced ceviche, Jalisco-style hot wings and French toast imbued with decadent tres leches cream was a culinary tragedy.

Thank goodness these dishes have found a new home at El Big Bad. While there are inconsistencies to be ironed out, there are plenty of gems.

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