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"Tex-Mex" is a term loosely thrown about in all parts of the country regardless of proximity or affiliation with the Lone Star State. Many have wrongly dismissed "Tex-Mex" as a catchall term for Americanized, low quality, cheese-and-chili heavy dishes only barely resembling their more authentic relatives. But if you buy into the notion that Tex-Mex is an entity unto itself, with a heritage and tradition distinguishing it from other iterations of Americanized or authentic Mexican food, then it's reasonable to imagine that one of Texas' most popular and farthest-reaching franchises might be able to shed some light on what exactly classic Tex-Mex is. And so, Little Rock welcomes its first branch of the Tex-Mex chain, Chuy's — a favorite of many a Texan, and particularly a Longhorn, for more than 30 years now. Chuy's does a fine job at capturing the essence of Tex-Mex cooking, serving up those dishes that have made this cuisine an endearing part of American culture. It's a queso-soaked, beef-loving, frozen-margarita world and although it's only been a few weeks since this place opened its doors to Arkansas, the masses are flooding in to get a taste of what Chuy's has to offer.
Chuy's (pronounced "chewy's") strives to immerse diners in the entire Tex-Mex experience, with brightly-colored, quirky (often bordering on weird) decor, hot flour tortillas, and a whole lot of cheese. Its servings are ample and combination platters monster-sized — if you leave Chuy's hungry, you did something wrong.
Chuy's will start you off with a seemingly never-ending supply of chips and salsa. The thin, white corn chips are served hot and crisp — indeed, you can nearly always spot one of the staff making rounds throughout the restaurant, delivering fresh chips to any party running low. The salsa is a blend of fresh, whole tomatoes, jalapenos and lime juice. It's a decent, but mild, salsa. In addition to the chips and salsa, it's not a bad idea to start off with some of the chile con queso ($5.99). This house blend of melted cheeses is flavored by green chilies and fire-roasted tomatoes. It's creamy and smooth, flavorful, and not heavy or waxy as other poorer versions of the cheese dip might be. Unfortunately, the house guacamole ($5.89) was a standard blend of avocado, tomato, onions and cilantro that was lacking in flavor. Lastly, there's the creamy jalapeno ranch dip. The dip was tasty, and 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.
Perhaps no other dish typifies Tex-Mex more than enchiladas, and Chuy's does well in this regard, offering cheese, ground beef and shredded chicken varieties. The menu touts a short list of around a half-dozen sauces to use to smother your enchiladas — the waitstaff will gladly bring you samples of each if you're having trouble deciding. We went with the custom enchilada plate ($9.29), where we could mix and match fillings and sauces. The red chili with seasoned beef is a classic Tex-Mex combination — it's a solid choice, spicy and thick, and makes a nice accompaniment to the cheese enchiladas. But we were more impressed with our chicken enchiladas, stuffed full of melted jack cheese, and topped with their "deluxe tomatillo" sauce — a creamy blend of tomatillos, cilantro, and sour cream. Chuy's is also quite proud of its "Boom-Boom" sauce — a cheese-heavy sauce, with roasted New Mexican green chilies, tomatillos, green onions, cilantro and lime juice. Though the name is a little corny, the concoction was excellent on both ground beef and shredded chicken enchiladas — rich, creamy and spicy, with a hint of citrus.
Combination plates will always be a crowd pleaser among diners looking to get more variety in their meal, and Chuy's offers plenty of gut-busting platters to satiate even the hungriest patrons. These Texas-sized plates are filled with any combination of tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, chalupas and tamales, and every plate is piled high with food, sometimes to the point of embarrassment. The "Elvis Presley Memorial Combo" ($10.69) is a solid option for anyone wanting to nab a few enchiladas with an added beef taco and tostada chips smothered in queso. We opted for the soft taco, which is particularly tasty — constructed from soft, hand-made flour tortillas that may be the single greatest thing on the entire Chuy's menu. You can watch through a glass window a small group of Latina women making them by hand and tossing them on a rotating flattop stove. The tacos are hefty but delightfully good, stuffed to the gills with seasoned beef, cheese, lettuce, and tomato. Lastly, we could not resist the Baja tacos ($8.99), made with those fantastic flour tortillas, but this time filled with hot, freshly fried white fish. The fish was soft and flaky, with a crispy batter, accompanied by shredded red cabbage and creamy jalapeno dressing — we'd certainly order these again on a return visit.
Chuy's is certainly not "authentic" Mexican cuisine — nor is it trying to be. 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 its portions will likely leave no one wanting for more. On the entryway doors, Chuy's proudly displays the declaration, "If you've seen one Chuy's, you've seen one Chuy's," and it's clear this restaurant would like Central Arkansas to embrace it as its own, despite its Texan ancestry.