According to Robb Walsh’s book The Tex-Mex Grill, skirt steak was once considered so unworthy that it was given to ranch hands as part of their pay, along with other undesirable cuts like the head and intestines. Cooks had to pound the skirt steak and soak it in lime juice so it would be tender enough to eat. Those were the earliest “fajitas,” a word that means “little belt” and alludes to the shape of the meat, which comes from the cow’s diaphragm.
Today, fajitas are so much in demand that Galleria-area restaurant Añejo can sell them for a whopping $29.50 for a half-pound and $49.50 a pound. In this case, “expensive” doesn’t mean “better.”
According to a server, Añejo makes its fajitas with “the best” outside skirt. (The menu doesn’t state which cut of meat is used and doesn’t make the value proposition clear.)
Indeed, Añejo’s skirt steak is a gorgeous, thick hunk of sliced beef, though undermined by the clunky, greasy mix of onions and bell peppers underneath. The meat was a lovely mahogany color. There wasn’t a dispute over the quality, and yet something was desperately, heartbreakingly wrong.
Fajitas are normally a fun, showy, communal dish that hits three senses — sight, sound and smell — before ever arriving at the table. When a server walks through a room with a tray of fajitas, diners gaze eagerly, hoping he’s headed their way. A banner of smoke and steam waves proudly through the dining room as the server marches through, and the trailing smell of seared meat taunts every carnivore’s appetite to a fevered pitch.
The fajitas land in front of the lucky diners. The cast-iron comal is ensconced in a wooden holder so it doesn’t burn the table. Only the foolish or masochistic would dare touch it with bare hands. The meat sizzles. The peppers are a little charred on the ends, and the onions stick to the comal as they continue to caramelize, which makes them even better.
That is what ordering fajitas is supposed to be like. At Añejo, though, the fajitas were mute. There was no pop and sizzle. There was no beefy scent or even a whisper of steam wafting through the air. The onions and bell pepper slices sat dully on the platter, looking greasy but not seared. The comal was warm, but you could touch it without being burned. These fajitas had no magic, no drama and none of the allure that propelled fajitas into being one of the most popular meat dishes ever invented.
Surely it was a mistake — an off night in the kitchen. Alas, no. We ordered them again on a lunchtime visit — and it was just the same as before. (At least at lunch a half-pound is $10 cheaper.) As for the accoutrements, the bacon-infused borracho beans were very good. The Mexican rice, reddish with ground pepper and cumin, had pep and spark but was a little dry. The tortillas were on the thicker side and fairly tender, but when the show is so disappointing, no one cares about the side acts.
It’s not that everything at Añejo is bad. In fact, if the execution followed through on the elegant menu descriptions, the fajitas could be forgiven as some kind of practical joke. The beautiful venison tamales are a window into what Añejo could be if it were operating at its full potential. Three thick, squatty tamales are served in a pool of red mole, with the corn husks pulled back and tied at the ends to expose the contents. Pomegranate seeds are scattered about, adding blushes of ruby-red color. (They were a little reminiscent of Añejo’s duck mole and pomegranate tacos, which won two awards at the recent Houston Press Tacolandia competition.)
The tamales were very close to being rave-worthy, except for the huge dollops of crema that turned each into a bit of a mess. The layer of masa underneath was so thick that past a thinner layer of mole-soaked venison, it was like eating a hunk of cornbread with a fork.
After the disappointments, we lobbed Añejo a softball and ordered cheese enchiladas. Those are hard to mess up. Añejo still managed. They’re stuffed with Oaxaca cheese, a Mexican variety similar to mozzarella, and topped with tomatillo sauce. The sauce had the characteristic tanginess, but was also almost inedibly salty.
Worse, the kitchen didn’t heat the enchiladas through. The centers were cool and the cheese in the middle hadn’t melted. Being served a plate of cheese enchiladas with cold, unmelted cheese inside is just awful.
Amid the major losers are a few winners. Añejo’s elote, roasted corn on the cob, is on skewers and heavily coated in Valentina hot sauce-spiked aioli and crumbled cotija. It manages to be decadent but refined. (Mind your nice clothing when you eat this. The cheese tends to fall off.)
The barbacoa tacos are spot-on, filled with soft, silky beef and topped with raw, chopped white onions just as they should be. (The only fancy touch is the micro-cilantro on top instead of the regular kind.) At lunchtime, a plate of two is $14 and comes with spicy Mexican rice and beans. It was a favorite and one of the lower-priced entrées on the menu, too.
The food mishaps are a big shame, because Añejo has a pleasing, sultry atmosphere that could make for romantic date nights. In the evenings, when the lights are low, there’s a seductive hacienda vibe to it. Booths are upholstered in red leather and framed in dark wood. Ledges are constructed in pale marble and the walls are white — the better to highlight the lacy black lampshades.
A big, squared-off bar is the centerpiece of the rear dining room and a good setting for Post Oak-area office workers to unwind as the sun goes down. Añejo has a craft cocktail program, sometimes more in theory than in practice. There are a handful of mezcal-based cocktails, which is a great idea, but, as with the food, the execution is hit or miss.
The Mexancani cocktail was one of the finer examples. Mezcal came through with daring smokiness while being held in taut balance by sweet French vermouth and spiced orange liqueur. On a different visit, a mezcal-based old-fashioned was way out of balance, lacking enough honey to sweeten and smooth out the rough edges of the spirit.
There’s a safety net, fortunately — a way to avoid this unstable mixology act. It’s the wine list, and the selection is quite good, even the by-the-glass list. This is where it becomes obvious that Añejo is owned by a company with lots of experience in running wine-centric businesses. Specifically, it’s run by Lasco Enterprises, which also owns The Tasting Room and Max’s Wine Dive. Among the requisite Malbecs and Cabernet Sauvignons were some brave and clever off-the-beaten-path choices, like Botromagno Primitivo from Italy’s Puglia region. It meshed with beef and moles beautifully and was only $8 a glass.
Service here ranges from excellent to perfunctory. One waiter was pleasant enough and went through the motions, but lacked any of the warmth or attentiveness that make diners feel genuinely cared about. He couldn’t be blamed for his lack of enthusiasm, really. There were only three occupied tables in the whole restaurant.
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On the opposite side of the spectrum was the warm, gracious gentleman who took care of us during dinner one evening. Service can be an art — a delicate dance between attentiveness and unobtrusiveness, between suggesting and selling and between friendliness and patronization. This gentleman knew the steps by heart and had probably been practicing them for years.
There’s an adage: “All sizzle and no steak.” It means there’s glamour but no substance. If a restaurant is a great value, it’s okay if it has substance and no sizzle. With a ritzy Galleria location, lofty vision and pricey menu, Añejo must figure out how to provide the sizzle to go with its steak.
1180-1 Uptown Park Boulevard, 713-963-9032. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 3 to 11 p.m. Saturdays; 3 to 10 p.m. Sundays.
Elote loco $11
Barbacoa tacos $14 and $16 (dinner)
Cheese enchiladas (lunch) $14
Venison mole enchilada $21
Beef fajitas, half-pound (lunch) $19.50
Beef fajitas, half-pound (dinner) $29.50
Botromagno Primitivo $8
Mezcal old-fashioned $12
The Mexancani $12