March 17th, 2011

El Real Tex-Mex Cafe: The Soft Opening

In 6 Words: Guac, Manteca, Felix, Borunda, Traditional, Inspired

Growing up in the back of a Mexican food restaurant in The Alamo City, I fancy myself a connoisseur of Mexican food. So, naturally, I have had my sights set on El Real Tex-Mex Café since the day the restaurant was announced a few months ago. El Real is a collaboration between “Next Iron Chef” contestant and Reef chef, Bryan Caswell, and former Houston Press food critic, Robb Walsh, and Bill Floyd located in the old Tower Theater on Westheimer. I managed to weasel some reservations to the soft opening last night, and I will share my thoughts.

First, I must say that I love all the thought that has gone into making El Real more like the hole in the wall Mexican food joints I’m used to from South Texas and less like the more urban Tex-Mex joints that sprout up everywhere in Houston. This is the influence of Robb Walsh who is somewhat of a Tex-Mex historian. It is apparent from the first moments after walking in. The hostesses stand behind a glass counter that houses some antiqued pictures and artifacts from other restaurants that are not less than a day old. They still have yet to fill some of the cases, and they are rumored to sell chicklets and mexican candies from the counter. Hopefully, they leave room for some mexican pastries, like mexican wedding cookies (my favorite!).

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The next thing I noticed as we walked to our table upstairs was the functional tortillaria on display. Watching all the fresh tortillas being made was originally made popular in the 1980’s at San Antonio’s Alamo Cafe. The upstairs houses the original windows of the old El Felix restaurant turned into additional cases housing more authentic Tex-Mex memorabilia. In fact, much of the old El Felix has a home at El Real: the chairs, the windows, and even the front door. From our table upstairs, we have a full feel of the ambiance, from the strings of lights across the restaurant, to the big screen playing old westerns (an homage to the Tower Theater).

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On to the important stuff, the food! As this was a “soft opening” we were told to order straight off the limited menu, and that this is the first practice run for the staff, so expect the service to reflect that (oh, the sacrifices we make for free food…), but actually the service wasn’t too bad.

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The salsa was very good, using a smoked pepper. It was clearly a cooked salsa rather than a fresh salsa, and the smoked peppers didn’t offer much of a spice, but a subtle, sweet smokiness that didn’t overpower the salsa which tends to be the case elsewhere.  The frozen margarita was one of the best I have had! I’m not usually a fan of margaritas, because I find them too acidic and too sweet (I’m a beer guy), but El Real’s had a nice balance of flavor that didn’t depreciate.

As we ordered the appetizer they brought us some fresh tortillas. This may be what I was looking forward to most, if to reminisce of the Alamo Cafe or only to satisfy my love of tortillas. Either way, I wasn’t disappointed. I had read that they planned to use fresh manteca, or lard, and I could tell right away before I even bit into the first tortilla. These tortillas were more like the home-cooked tortillas served to me at friends’ houses growing up and less like anything I have had in restaurants.

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For appetizers, as soon as I saw the pozole, I had to order it. It wasn’t quite like your abuela from Eagle Pass might make, but it was still pretty good. I enjoyed the lime, cilantro, and fresh onion served on the side (the way it’s supposed to), as well as the addition of sliced radishes. The smoked chicken in the soup absolutely melted in my mouth. We also ordered guacamole, which was more like the small salad served as an after thought on enchiladas than an appetizer. The quality was still pretty good, as it was a coarse guac with lots of cilantro, lime, and large chopped tomatoes.

For entrees, we opted to sample two separate dishes rather than the fajitas for two (as there was not a “for one” option). Being from San Antonio, ordering puffy tacos was a no brainer. These taco’s didn’t come out as BIG and puffy as I would have wanted, but were just as greasy! They won’t find a place among the pantheon of Henry’s Puffy Tacos, Ray’s Drive-in, and Los Barrios in San Antonio anytime soon (I’m a Ray’s fan myself). However, the pork filling on the inside was delicious and perfectly cooked.

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One of the first rules of Mexican food I was taught growing up, is that you can tell how authentic a place is by their beans and especially their rice. Well, the refried beans passed the test, thanks again to the fresh manteca – which really makes or breaks good refried beans – as well as the salt level. However, the rice failed. I found that the rice was kind of bland with too many of these cutesy carrot strings. It seems that El Real had made a commitment to authenticity only fails with the rice and nothing else, it’s still on the right path.

We also ordered the Enchiladas Borunda, a pork enchilada with guajillo chile. While this may have strayed from a more traditional pick off the menu, like a cheese enchilada or a combination plate, they were serviceable. The pork was a little on the over cooked side, but it still mixed VERY well with the cheese and red guajillo chile sauce (different than your regular chili con carne topping). Although I might opt for another menu item next time, I’d still recommend it.

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Last, they weren’t offering dessert, so I assume we will see some combo of flan, sopapillas, or tres leches on the full menu. The real test will be if they opt to do more of the Mexican bakery items like wedding cookies and pan de dulces, which are often offered behind the counter with the cash register at the typical hole in the wall.

I left impressed with El Real Tex-Mex Café, mostly with the potential of what the food could be. With each of our courses we could see the careful thought and consideration of staying traditional, and for the most part, the Caswell and Walsh collaboration seems inspired. I can’t wait to return soon to see the full menu and what sort of tweaks and changes they make.

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Where -  Montrose – 1201 Westheimer Rd., 77006 (Google Map)
What
– Traditional Tex-Mex like your abuela makes.
Wear – Casual for Caswell’s new restaurant
How Much – Free on this night… You will have to pay next time around.
Hours – Mon-Thu 11am-11pm; Fri 11am – 3am; Sat (Brunch) 10am – 3am; Sun (Brunch) 10am – 11pm
WebTwitter; Facebook; Website

— Sean

Comments

Betty Coody — Thursday, March 17, 2011 12:53 pm

Thank you for the information. We look forward to see if we agree with you. A friend had told us that we were going whenever it opened. We went to El Felix Restaurant many ‘moons’ ago.

patrick — Sunday, March 27, 2011 8:08 pm

I was very disappointed. This reminded me of mexican TV dinners. Way too much salt and little flavor.

Linda — Monday, March 28, 2011 9:01 pm

One of the best cheese enchiladas in my life, and I was weaned on cheese enchiladas in South Central Texas. The chili gravy made with ancho chili sauce and flecked with bits of ground beef is the real deal. The cheese is exactly the right Tex-Mex stuff. Gotta order the enchiladas with onions (oh, you onion-haters, grow up). Beans were good; need a dash more lard. Puffy tacos could be crisper. Chips were perfect. Salsa was terrific. Owners: Y’all guys don’t listen to the whiners. The cooked salsa with its slightly sweet tang of roasted peppers and tomatoes is fabulous. True Tex-Mex salsa isn’t supposed to burn holes in everyone’s mucous membranes. Maybe serve a little chili pequin sauce on request for the die-hards? I’ll be back again and again. Love your new place & how it looks. The Felix chairs made me verklempt.

Mackey — Wednesday, March 30, 2011 1:28 pm

@patrick, exactly! TV dinner nails it. This place is wowing people with style and backstory, but the food is subpar and ridiculously expensive. $13 for what is essentially a small combo platter!

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