I am sure you’ve heard of Chuy’s. It’s basically a household name around Austin. Beginning in 1982, Chuy’s Tex-Mex was formed from the remains of an old barbecue restaurant on Barton Springs. Two friends named Mike and John barely scraped together enough cash to buy the building, much less fill it with decorations. So the guys thought for a second and bought the first cheap decor they saw, which happened to be paintings of Elvis and Stevie Wonder. Thus an avalanche of color and diversity flowed into Chuy’s Tex-Mex…that hasn’t stopped yet. Today, you’ll find Chuy’s spreading Austin Tex-Mex to various states beneath the Mason-Dixon line.
Walking into Chuy’s N. Lamar location for the first time was a shocking experience. The guys definitely stuck with the Elvis theme. I saw pictures, photos, statues of the King in action with his guitar. If you’re not an Elvis fan though, don’t let that turn you away. Elvis is just part of the eclectic constellation you’ll see during your lunch.
Your host will probably nestle you somewhere between the faux palm trees and bamboo/bottle cap fencing. Or he may sit you beneath the school of multicolored flying fish. Personally, I took a corner booth near kindly-looking tiki so I could see the whole dining room. The room felt chaotic yet controlled, tropical and thrown together.
If Andy Warhol had built the set for Elvis’ film Blue Hawaii, it would have looked like Chuy’s Tex-Mex.
But what about the food? When it comes to Tex-Mex joints, the cuisine is the be-all-end-all, after all. Is Chuy’s worthy of its first place title in the Austinot Tex-Mex Facebook poll?
Let me break it down.
Chuy’s salsa needed to be good. Tons of people raved about it online. Even Austinot Eric gave me a five minute soliloquy about how delicious it is. By the time I had settled into my booth, I was afraid to believe the brazenly optimistic reviews. My server arrived with chips and salsa in hand. It was time. I sunk a chip and bit.
Chuy’s serves a very chunky salsa. It’s nothing like the blended paste I’ve seen at most Tex-Mex restaurants. It’s the type of salsa you can pile onto a chip. Overall it was a solid salsa, though perhaps not the best in Austin (yes, other restaurants, that is a challenge). I tasted a lot of onion and cilantro , which can potentially ruin a salsa for me. Chuy’s salsa, however, finishes with a distinct tangy spice. I don’t know what kind of peppers they use, but the salsa will get you right in your cheeks. It was enough to keep me dipping and refilling my bowl.
By now I was really starting to enjoy my stay at Chuy’s, so I decided to order a margarita. One of my readers had commented on my last Tex-Mex challenge. He told me to order my margaritas on the rocks for a more flavorful drink. Remembering this, I asked my server for a classic margarita on the rocks. She didn’t come back with a glass, but instead with a goblet – no, a chalice – filled with lime-green goodness. Whatever the vessel is called, it was big. The margarita itself was very good. The tequila was not particularly strong, so it was easy for a margarita newbie like me to enjoy.
After the chips and salsa, I enjoyed Chuy’s chicken quesadilla appetizer. The quesadilla is separated into fourths, so it is the perfect thing to share with a few friends. The flour tortilla is thick and fresh, and it contains copious amounts of moist chicken. There are a couple of different types of cheeses in there as well. I munched on my quesadilla and watched families eat and chat after church and soccer practice.
Soon my server was back with my lunch. I chose one of Chuy’s signature dishes: a chile relleno and chicken enchilada. What’s great is how Chuy’s has a list of eight or so sauces you can choose from. You can smother your chalupas in whatever sauce you desire. The list is attached to their menu, and the sauces range from mild to crazy-hot. I hedged my bets and chose the regular “Tex-Mex” sauce.
Suffice it to say that Chuy’s is serious about quality and quantity. My dish came with a massive beef-stuffed and fried chile, the enchilada, and generous heaps of refried beans and rice. The Tex-Mex sauce was much spicier than I had expected. None of it was overwhelming, though. Each part of my dish complimented the others well, despite the ground sirloin in my chile relleno being a bit bland.
The breakdown: Chuy’s is an Austin original gone national. The atmosphere is zany and fun, though at times it seems forced. Don’t come here if you want a quiet and humble Tex-Mex experience. Instead, come here if you want to spend time talking and laughing over seriously good food.
Austinot Dusty asks:
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Photos are property of Princess Stand in the Rain and Haleigh Burger, respectively.