Cynics recently released a Bryan Caswell success story moan upon realizing this televised top chef was set to open yet another restaurant in Houston. Location chatter quickly focused on the enormity of the former Tower Theater on Westheimer, in which El Real Tex-Mex Cafe now resides. Screams could be heard from Montrose to Midtown… Could this cantina concept really be more about volume than vavoom?
During an interview with Bill Floyd last summer, I asked if this were a turn em’ burn em’ kinda deal, in which he replied… Not so much. Floyd feels after having Bon Appétit Magazine label Caswell’s restaurant, Reef, as the number one seafood restaurant in the United States in 2009, there really is nowhere to go but… down.
Floyd describes El Real as a groovy upscale Mexican throwback to the days of Felix & Leos, as well as a Mama Ninfas type of place with old school Tex-Mex. As for those hubbubing about expectations & restaurant size, Floyd growls, “It’s cheese enchiladas guys… We’re not trying to be Rick Bayless in Chicago. This is just good ole Tex-Mex. Have another margarita and enjoy it. That’s the idea behind it, which is what Caswell really wants.”
Retired Houston Press restaurant critic, Robb Walsh, is a highly respected Tex-Mex-pert whose presence as partner has fluffed things up substantially, regardless of his restaurant bridges being burned, even charred, after years of criticizing others for a living. Floyd described Robb’s take on Tex-Mex as being its own genre of food, rather than the red headed step child, per say.
P.S. Don’t assume Caswell’s marketing ability easily seals the deal with everyone. However, throw in Robb Walsh & Bill Floyd as business partners, and a winning combination is in the works.
Sudden big bow bewilderment consumed all functioning brain cells upon entering El Real. So mesmerizing is this experience, one might consider it comparable to entering a hypnotic state of entrancement while passing an almost eight car pile up on I-45 during rush hour traffic.
Um, I’m sorry, but there is absolutely no reason to own a bow of this size upon passing the age in which one is able to speak. Bows of this magnitude are reserved for children not yet being able to voice an opinion, thus civil hair rights aren’t yet relevant. AVH must go ahead, without wasting a tremendous accessory second and give this hostess a Double Do You Realize How Big Your Bow Is Wow.
After experiencing Reef’s bar service, cough, tis more than a no brainer to take a seat at this one. Before El Real opened, we paused for a moment of silence in hopes that the bartenders would be the opposite of those at Reef… dog ugly with epic skills and the always appreciated qualifications.
While the majority of Caswell’s bartenders are usually well above average Bob Barker beautiful, what a relief to meet the bartender at El Real last week. There is no sexy over service on this hire, for her service industry skills are real, while still being gorgeous. Imagine that.
Please & Gracias.
Even the most basic Mexican restaurant’s being may be defined by their margarita. While El Real’s margarita does not maintain a status of excellent, it doesn’t cause one to run for the border. While living on the edge, my neighbor ordered an upside down beer placed inside the very margarita in which he wished. His joy level rose with each lift of this bottle.
There is nothing more exciting than hearing Caswell brought over his oh so fabulous drink from Reef… Milk Shake “No Minors,” which combines Brandy & Kahlua with ice cream in the very best way. Do yourself a favor: Skip the margarita and order this shake, for it is grand.
Moving through the menu was scary at first, making it halfway down before spotting a dish without beef, chicken, or pork. Though easy to pleasantly place three carcass options, it would be just as simple to add shrimp as well. Humans all across America fancy shrimp in their taco or enchilada and even on top of their nachos. For example, nachos are offered with fajita beef, smoked chicken, or veggie. Non carcass eaters are somewhat bored with veggie all the time, hence seafood.
After eyeing the tin can tacos with rice & refried beans during lunch, the only thoughts present were what if… what if… just what if. Mental anguish existed after reading these particular tacos could only possess smoked chicken or picadillo beef. Eww.
The menu clearly states… NO SUBSTITUTIONS! Sometimes to not ask is a challenging task. Yes, there are several items on the menu offering shrimp or some type of veggies. The menu is even so kind as to have a “V” before all options suitable for vegetarians. BUT, after having the shrimp tacos at El Gran Malo last month, a taco just isn’t a taco without… shrimp.
After breaking the no substitution rule request, the bartender quickly entered the kitchen for possible approval. She returned with an answer almost always predictable… up charge.
El Real’s taco shells are fried to order, with a mini shell making booth placed front and center. While these particular tacos look gorgeous, um, the highly anticipated shrimp were excruciatingly dry. There was no alternative other than to entree morph, thus forcing these two to exist as one. An almost explosion of cheese from the enchiladas saved the day in a cheesy taco way. Dipping & digging, mixing & refixing, ultimately produced a sigh of dry relief.
Besides the always on a Mexican menu apps like guacamole and chile con queso, El Real offers shrimp campechana, which is a chilled shrimp cocktail with avocado. Oh, add crab meat if this is the wish for your dish.
The menu lists the next dish as a veggie choice exclusively during lunch each Friday. Two cheese enchiladas in vegetarian Friday sauce, with veggie rice & refried black beans. Somewhat common these days is slapping a fried egg on top. Joy! Another option is the mushroom and poblano enchilada with Friday sauce, refried beans, and veggie rice.
Suddenly, while stuffing my face as if the world would remain the same, Robb Walsh sashayed through the front door of El Real. While walking by, he semi stopped with a mini glance and said, “Don’t you write for Almost Veggie?” Was I hearing things? Could some type of food writer fairy have landed on my head producing thoughts of utter nonsense? He knows I exist, therefore life may commence. Refreshing indeed is that Robb Walsh is as kind as he is talented.
Walsh asked AVH to be the first to taste a future menu item for veggie people. Chile relleno was to become one with the menu the very next day. Mega amounts of cheese oozed from start to finish, with just enough spice to entice.
Tres leches was a must as far as the bartender was concerned. She was spot on. Not only is it delicious, it is gigantically enormous. Restaurant sadness occurred quickly after leaving the to-go box behind. Fail. Other desserts at El Real are churros, ancho brownie, and the above mentioned milkshake “No Minors.”
Just as Bill Floyd stated last summer, the goal intended for El Real is to provide a place that’s fun where people can hang out after work… simply have a margarita with no worries. Is El Real overrated? Of course it is. Is it their fault? No. They never said they wanted more than what they’ve given.
FIVE: High 5!
FOUR: Please & Thank You
TWO: Double Wow
ONE: Wow + Ouch = Wouch