Some of you know (or may have guessed by now) that I came to Arkansas via Texas. Now, I’m not a born n’ bred Texan, but I spent good enough chunk of time there to get a decent feel for its culinary happenings, particularly those truly classic Texas dishes that have put places like Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas on the global gastronomic map. Many years ago, upon my arrival to the Lone Star State, I was particularly fascinated by the concept of “Tex-Mex.” I’d heard of such a thing before, of course, but I’d never truly experienced it in full force, and never fully grasped what the cuisine entailed. For the first year or so of my tenure in Texas, I spent a sizable number of my dining experiences immersing myself in this queso-soaked, beef-loving, skillet-full-of-fajitas, frozen-margarita world. Honestly, it was a joyous time—I became quite fond of those classically Tex-Mex dishes, and I suppose I came to understand, in some small way, what the essence of Tex-Mex really is. Perhaps the best homage to Tex-Mex I’ve read came from a 2007 New York Times piece by Joe Drape entitled, “A Celebration of Tex-Mex, Without Apology.” Here, Drape describes a similar situation to my own in which he, a Texas outsider, was thrown into this mystical world of smothered enchiladas and came out of it with a sweet fondness for the food. He defends Tex-Mex for what it is, and not for what others feel it’s trying to be (with some misplaced hopes for authenticity). His closing words seal his testimony: “Neither the government of Mexico nor the high priests of that country’s cuisine are going to get an apology from me. In the Lone Star state, Tex-Mex is as authentic as any food can be.”
We were escorted back to our seats, after having to convince ourselves not to fill up on chips and cheese. As we sauntered through the main dining area, we passed by a rounded glass window, wherein a skilled Latino woman stood hand-making flour tortillas and tossing them on a rotating flat stovetop. A promising sight—I mentally committed to myself that a few of those tortillas would find their way to our table.
Sitting down, we perused the menu and decided to start with appetizers (because the nacho car was simply not enough to get us going). We sampled guacamole and a concoction best described as “jalapeno ranch.” The guacamole was fair, but not spectacular, lacking much of the freshness, creaminess, and richness one would expect from a truly great, tableside guacamole. The jalapeno dip was tasty, some at our table wanted to dip our entire meal in the stuff—it’s basically ranch dressing with a bit of spice, but it was a nice side to complement the salsa, cheese dip, and guacamole already at the table.Guy Fieri menu, the concoction was pleasant and excellent on our ground beef enchiladas—spicy, slightly sweet, with a hint of citrus.
We ordered a couple of combination platters, the manhole-sized plates filled with any combination of tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, chalupas, and tamales. Every plate was piled high with food, sometimes to the point of embarrassment, but each item was distinctive and deserving of attention in its own right. Soft tacos (utilizing those handmade tortillas I mentioned above) were excellent—soft, warm tortillas stuffed to the gills with seasoned beef, cheese, lettuce, and tomato. Our fish taco was also surprisingly pleasurable—a large, batter-dipped and fried filet of white fish, accompanied by shredded red cabbage and creamy jalapeno dressing—one of our favorite items of the night.
In the end, it’s best to take a step back and consider what Chuy’s is and what it’s not. It’s certainly not “authentic” Mexican cuisine—nor is it trying to be. It’s not the best Tex-Mex I’ve ever eaten. It’s not locally-sourced, seasonal, or organic. It’s a chain. A lot of what you get is expected, but you can bank on it being consistent. It’s well-staffed, its employees well-trained, friendly, and welcoming. It’s reasonably priced and their portions will likely leave no one wanting for more. I, for one, welcome Chuy’s to the Little Rock dining scene, but I realize there will be some who are less then impressed with it. Perhaps a bit of my approval is seasoned with a touch of nostalgia—I’ll admit to that—but my belly was rather pleased that night and I imagine it will be for many future visits to come.
(Chuy's is located at 16001 Chenal Pkwy, Little Rock. 501-821-2489)
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