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.”
I’ve eaten a lot of Tex-Mex food. But even in Texas, many look down on the stuff as inferior and almost shameful. Ask most any aspiring Texas foodie, hoping to be known as “the guy who always has the inside scoop into the town’s hottest, undiscovered culinary hot-houses” and there’s not a snowball’s chance in a Texas summer that they’re going to spout off a 45-year old, well-established Tex-Mex restaurant as one of the greatest eateries in town. But love it or hate it, when done right, Tex-Mex can simply be a pleasurable and beautiful thing—a belief I hold firmly to this day.
And now, Little Rock welcomes its first branch of the Tex-Mex chain, Chuy’s
—a favorite of many a Texan, and particularly a Longhorn, for years now. Surprisingly, in all my Tex-Mex escapades, I’ve never set foot within a Chuy’s. But now, with many miles between me and the Texas-Arkansas border, I relished the chance to rekindle that love that once held me spellbound in its warm, spicy embrace. I was fortunate to be a part of a pre-opening media event earlier this week—a sort of trial run for the Chuy’s staff in preparation for their opening day which occurred this past Tuesday, May 7th. The place was already overflowing with guests, every seat in the house was taken when we arrived. But luckily, the entire Chuy’s operation is a well-oiled machine, and while there were a few to-be-expected snags in a few orders (given it was their first night, running on all cylinders), we found it to be an overall pleasant experience.
Chuy’s, despite what you may actually think about the flavor of the food, has definitely succeeded in capturing the essence of the Tex-Mex experience. Brightly-colored décor, faux Mexican paintings, hot flour tortillas, and a whole lot of cheese. It’s big servings and combination platters, all served on monster-sized plates—if you leave Chuy’s hungry, you did something wrong.
Our group started out at the bar area, as there was a twenty minute wait to get a table. We ordered some drinks and were immediately intrigued by the looming “nacho car” in the corner of the room. This, my friends, is a beautiful thing. Here, half of a life-sized automobile protrudes from the wall, its hood open for all to see its contents. Inside said hood is an endless supply of complimentary chips, golden yellow queso, ground beef, salsa, and refried beans. The steaming metal trays of food are more than inviting, they welcome one in the doors like a warm hug on a winter’s night. The chips are white corn, thin, and crispy. The queso is surprisingly good—hot, tempered with chopped tomato and onion, rich and creamy—a good deal better than your average Velvetta-laden monstrosity. The addition of a scoop of spicy, seasoned ground beef makes for an excellent start to any meal. The nacho car is actually designed for the happy hour crowd—operating Monday through Friday from 4 to 7 pm—and a happy hour it will be whenever you sit down to a basket of this beautiful stuff.
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.
In the article I referenced earlier, Drape declares, “the embodiment of Tex-Mex is a cheese enchilada with gravy.” For those not familiar with the dish, the “gravy” in question is generally a red, spicy, meat and chili gravy—it’s omnipresent on menus throughout Texas, and Chuy’s is no exception. In fact, Chuy’s signature enchilada platters do not end with the simple red chili gravy. They tout a short list of around a half-dozen sauces to smother your enchiladas in—the waitstaff will gladly bring you samples of each as well if you can’t decide how you’d like to dress your dish. As expected, the classic red chili is available—it’s a solid choice, spicy and thick. We decided to top our cheese enchiladas with this brew—a classic combination that works well together. We also enjoyed a creamy green tomatillo sauce that was an excellent addition to our chicken. They’re also quite proud of their “Boom-Boom” sauce—a blend of cheese, roasted New Mexican green chiles, tomatillos, green onions, cilantro and lime juice. Though its name sounds like an atrocity that would be featured on a 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.
Finally, we sampled steak fajitas—a classically Tex-Mex dish, but one that, frankly, we’ve been disappointed with far too often. Chuy’s claims that their steak is marinated for 24 hours in Shiner Bock beer, Serrano peppers, lime juice and other spices. It sounds appetizing, but the end results were a bit underwhelming. Our biggest complaint with the dish was overcooked beef, which came to us hot, on a sizzling platter, but a bit stringy, dry, and pathetic. We were pleased to see this served with a small insulated dish filled with those handmade tortillas, which we made good use of— stuffing them with everything from beans and rice to queso and enchilada sauce.
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)