Cheese, glorious cheese.
Chips, salsa and queso
Tex-Mex that we long for
Screw the reviews, just go
If Oliver and his fellow orphans had been fed El Real’s Tex-Mex Fare, they would have found sufficient sustenance to pick half the pockets in London. While the Caswell/Floyd/Walsh culinary creations may not have been available in the Dickens era, we’re lucky to have in Houston this new contribution to Texas’ most beloved cuisine. (Apologies to those who consider barbecue to be the state food of Texas.)
Managing expectations is a key to many things in life. We didn’t go to El Real expecting the Tex-Mex version of Reef or Stella Sola. Not even sure we could have figured out what that would be. Probably a culinary oxymoron. And, while we’ve enjoyed meals at both those restaurants, we don’t consider them to be a barometer for measuring great food. It seemed more important to us that the former Houston Press restaurant critic and book author, Robb Walsh, was involved in El Real’s development. Which makes it all the more surprising that a Houston Press food blogger recently trashed pretty much every aspect of a Happy Hour experience at El Real. And the foodie websites have received plenty of comments about this place. It’s amazing how touchy people are about their Tex-Mex.
For the record, we had a great experience at El Real. We arrived later in the evening on a Saturday night. We were greeted warmly at the door, given a number of seating options, and quickly brought water, chips and salsa. The salsa has been slammed by a number of commentators. It’s not spicy or chunky like a pico de gallo style salsa. It’s smokier and thinner. But “tomato water” is not a fair characterization. We also understand (but didn’t try) that, upon request, they’ll bring you a much spicier salsa. The chips were fresh and who cares about salsa anyway when you can dip your chip in El Real’s yummy queso.
Not having got enough of the queso, we ordered the now almost famous # 7 cheese enchiladas topped with more of the stuff. (That’s a # 10.) The enchiladas were absolutely delicious, served piping hot, and so amazingly rich that we couldn’t handle much more than a few bites. (Great leftovers.) Sided by lard enriched refried beans and fluffy rice, these enchiladas are worth the trip alone. We also tried the puffy tacos (beef and pork) and enjoyed them. We aren’t puffy taco afficianados, so we couldn’t compare them to the San Antonio version about which everyone raves.
There’s no question we’ll be back to El Real.
We’re frequently seeking somewhere new that stays open late so we can dine after the theater or ballet. Alto fits that bill, and we stopped in one recent Saturday evening. We aren’t big fans of the RDG enterprise offerrings, having not even reviewed RDG on this blog. But we like pizza, and we live not far from the new West Ave center. With the restaurant’s pedigree, we weren’t sure what to expect in terms of the crowd but, later in the evening, there were plenty of tables. No reservations are taken.
The restaurant is very attractive. Contemporary, dark woods, huge windows overlooking Kirby, comfortable seating in almost a lounge like environment. There’s an open kitchen, with a view to the brick oven from which many of the menu offerrings emerge. The attitude of the server was a little nonchalant, but we can’t fault his timeliness. And he did graciously replace one of the signature wine cooler type drinks that we found too sweet.
We started with the oven roasted mussels. Baked in the oven in a copper pot in a white wine and herb infused broth, the mussels were tasty enough. To their credit (or detriment, depending on one’s perspective), the broth was quite light, no cream in sight. We were looking for a litle more flavor, but we weren’t filled up before our pizza arrived. We ordered Alto’s version of the meat lover’s pizza, topped with salami, italian sausage, and pepperoni, as well as mushrooms and provolone. Was it one of the best pizza’s we’ve ever had? No. Did we scarf it down with no leftovers? Yes.
Will we race back when we need a pizza fix? Probably not. Will we go back when we’re looking for a nice post-theater environment for a glass of wine and a bite to eat? Probably yes.
2400 Kirby (in the West Ave center at Westheimer)