A mammoth burger sits in front of me at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe, one bun heaped high with meat that's balanced precariously between a pantry's worth of toppings.
On the bottom of the bun, in place of mustard or mayonnaise, is a viscous spread of refried beans, rich with lard and well-salted. Atop the beans are Fritos, which are already soaking up the juices that ooze from the meat. And piled on the patty is a tangle of caramelized onions, roasted poblano peppers and melty shreds of queso fresco. The lettuce and tomato on top look almost laughably out of place by this point, and as I take my first bite of the beautifully medium-rare burger, I think to myself: This is a burger that Robb Walsh would be proud of.
And he should be proud of it; it's his burger, after all.
The former food critic for the Houston Press opened El Real Tex-Mex Cafe in March of this year along with two other notable heavy-hitters in the city's dining scene: Bryan Caswell, chef at Reef and host of the Food Network's Best in Smoke, and Bill Floyd. Floyd and Caswell are known for opening and operating a slew of successful restaurants in Houston: Reef, Little Bigs and Stella Sola. Floyd grew up in San Antonio, dining on that city's famous puffy tacos, and Walsh is the author of three books on Tex-Mex cuisine. All three share a love of old-school Tex-Mex, and created El Real Tex-Mex Cafe as an outpouring of their affection for the often maligned cuisine. The trio seemed perfectly matched, but it was also faced with legions of detractors hoping it would fail.
Although Walsh is almost universally beloved by our readers, they take a very different view of Caswell, who they see as getting too big for his britches. For his part, Caswell takes his many knocks with grace and rarely comments publicly on the flak thrown his way. Likewise, Walsh is disliked by many restaurateurs, many of whom have been eager to rip his restaurant apart in acts of retribution.
"The hunter will become the hunted," warned Rich Connelly in the Houston Press about El Real's announced opening.
Despite a rocky opening and harsh reviews, the men haven't failed in their pursuit of Tex-Mex glory. But they have faltered.
At El Real, even the smallest details are noticed by diners, from good to bad: The chairs, rescued from Felix Mexican Restaurant up the road, have been beautifully and lovingly refurbished. Good. The margaritas have an unremitting chemical aftertaste. Bad. The rich, dusky, nostalgia-inducing chile powder is ground by hand, from scratch, every day. Good. The food often arrives with dried, crispy edges, as if it's been sitting under a salamander broiler for too long. Bad.
Consistency issues abound at El Real, in its food, its drinks and its service. There's absolutely no denying that the food here is good — very good, in fact, as with the lush, almost buttery tacos al carbon — but it's so often mangled by the kitchen that it's difficult to appreciate that hand-ground chile powder or the lush, porcine lard that laces the refried beans. I've been on the receiving end of several wrong plates, of dried-out enchiladas, of Frito Pies with only the scantest amount of chili-logged chips, of bland tortillas lacking any salt, of food that took so long to arrive in an otherwise quiet early evening service that I wondered if — to quote my father — the cooks were out back killing the chickens themselves. One memorable afternoon, my dining companion received a mug full of pure tequila and ice after requesting a margarita on the rocks. "I thought that's what you wanted," responded the confused waiter. "You asked for house tequila."
Service, too, suffers. Waitstaff ranges from overly attentive to entirely absent, as with a bumbling young man who recently hung out at our table so often — intruding on conversations with his own take on subjects — that one dining companion jokingly offered him some of our food. I understand that when a certain new Tex-Mex place opened down the street, it poached almost all of El Real's staff. It's a tribute to El Real, however, that most of the staff came back mere days later.
And that's because, when it gets right down to it, El Real has a very solid foundation and the potential to become a landmark restaurant. There's nothing else like it in town. The chips and salsa alone testify to this fact.
The chips are thin, fine tributes to tortilla chips of old, as they should be. Ditto the salsa, served warm, which contains thickets of tomatoes and peppers that are roasted every day. Its deep, meaty flavor comes from the addition of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, for a satisfyingly rich kick. These two are almost enough to endear me to El Real through the good and the bad. After all, it's these nostalgic throwbacks upon which the entire restaurant is based.
Walsh, the "Tex-Mex apologist," unabashedly showcases old favorites on the menu alongside memorabilia and photos of Tex-Mex kings (and queens), past and present. On a wall upstairs hangs an ancient photo of legendary Tex-Mex purveyor Felix Tijerina with Pancho Villa's army; downstairs, posters tout the new Chingo Bling platter, named for the popular Houston rapper (whose real name, by the way, is Pedro Herrera III).
Those old menu favorites include dishes rarely seen elsewhere in Houston: San Antonio-style puffy tacos that are at their best when filled with soft shreds of mesquite-smoked chicken; enchiladas borunda, stacked enchiladas in the style of West Texas, filled with hearty pork and laced with sweet guajillo chiles; old-school cheese enchiladas topped with real-deal chili gravy, thick with high-quality ground beef and darker than the thin, ruddy sauce so many Houstonians have come to know and — in my case — accept grudgingly. The #7 cheese enchiladas at El Real are a revelation for younger generations who've never known the old style, and a pleasant trip down memory lane for people like my Texan parents.
"These taste just like the enchiladas I grew up with," my mother kept exclaiming over lunch one day. She delighted in reading the old menus that are planted under each tabletop — 25 cents for an enchilada platter here, 5 cents for a margarita there — and in browsing through the Tex-Mex "museum" upstairs after lunch. There's an odd, shrine-like sense to the memorabilia and old menus that sit, lit professionally, behind thick panes of glass.
For that museum, however, I don't see El Real becoming a shrine itself any time soon, although it could become one over a long period of time. Say, about the same length of time it took for places like Leo's and Felix — the restaurants that El Real seeks to emulate through an elaborate homage — to become shrines of their own.
To achieve that kind of success, El Real will have to perform an intricate dance between offering its patrons that nostalgic cuisine as well as creating their own. With dishes like the simply fantastic El Real burger and Caswell's signature "Wholefish" fajitas — the restaurant's twist on snapper a la plancha — it has real possibilities. And that's to say nothing of the actual beef fajitas here, that symbolic dish of "new" Tex-Mex cuisine, which use the same deeply flavorful outside skirt steak that Walsh has long touted as the best in the biz. But it will have to overcome those service and kitchen issues first.
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I'd also like to see the restaurant be more inviting, something that's hard to achieve in such a vast, high-ceilinged space. It could start with the hostesses, many of whom seem irritated to have to greet and seat guests, and often end up seating them in bizarre places: right next to the kitchen or bathrooms when the restaurant is otherwise empty, or all alone in the desolate section upstairs with no other tables. At least up there, though, you have El Real's fascinating museum to entertain you while you wait for a server to climb the metal stairs to your aerie.
And in this large space that was carved out of the old Tower Theater, I'd love to see more of an emphasis on the giant movie screen that Caswell insisted on installing, a throwback to the building's glory days as Montrose's main movie palace. Its neon lights and marquee have been lovingly restored as well, bringing a bright new sense of wonder to the Lower Westheimer curve once again.
Instead of the third screening of Fort Apache on the restaurant's giant back wall, why not host midnight movies once in a while? Charge $20 a head for a screening of La Bamba or Selena, $20 that covers the movie as well as one margarita, chips and salsa (which are already bottomless) and one plate of those magical #7 cheese enchiladas. It's $20 that I'd be more than happy to spend, here in a place that treasures Tex-Mex food as much as I do.