NYT on El Real

Restaurant Report: El Real Tex Mex in Houston
Published newyorktimes.com: September 2, 2011

In the darkness of the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, the blaring neon Art Deco sign of a 1930s former movie theater stretches high into the sky. Its bright letters now spell out El Real Tex Mex.

This beacon calls attention to a 9,000-square-foot restaurant that artfully blends past and present in a restaurant dedicated to Tex-Mex cuisine. The cavernous interior is airy; a refurbishing turned the hollowed-out cinema — it had been a video store for years — into El Real Tex-Mex, which opened in April. The menu is pure old-school: “vintage Tex-Mex,” as the chef and co-owner Bryan Caswell calls it. Dishes that predate canned sauces and taco shells from a box are cooked from scratch. And they can be “a pain” to make, said Mr. Caswell, who dreamed up the concept with his business partner Bill Floyd after seeing local Tex-Mex restaurants they had loved disappear.

In 2008, Felix Mexican Restaurant closed after more than 60 years in business, and Leo’s, another Tex-Mex institution, shuttered a few years before that. “These are my roots — I knew all these guys; they were heroes of mine,” said Mr. Caswell, a nominee for the James Beard award for best chef of the Southwest in 2010 and 2011 who has three other restaurants in Houston. “I wanted to do something that spoke to the old style.” The partners brought in Robb Walsh, a James Beard Award-winning writer of Tex-Mex cookbooks, as a consulting partner, and dedicated a section of the restaurant to displays of menus, photographs and paraphernalia from some of those Tex-Mex originals.

Puffy tacos are a must here. “You don’t really see a lot of them anymore in Houston — you have to fry them to order so they puff up and are crispy and chewy at the same time,” said Mr. Caswell, who fills his with barbecued pork, picadillo or smoked chicken.

Also on the menu is another dish that has become hard to find in Houston, enchiladas Borunda — stacked enchiladas filled with pork and spiked with guajillo chile — named after a now-defunct cafe in Marfa, Tex., that some historians credit with creating the Tex-Mex combination platter in the 1880s. There are also Tin Can Crispy Tacos, though Mr. Caswell’s cooks don’t form them using tin cans the way it used to be done. But ask Mr. Caswell what makes his tortillas and refried beans so good and his answer is pure tradition: “lard — we render our own lard from heritage pigs. The flavor is great and it’s healthier than hydrogenated lard.”

El Real Tex-Mex, 1201 Westheimer; (713) 524-1201; elrealtexmex.com. Appetizers start at $4.95; entrees start at $7.95.