Tex-Mex with a Side of Funk
Leah Walker June 26, 2012

As much as I love to travel, there are some things that keep me coming home. Family, dogs, a Tempur-Pedic mattress, and access to my shoe closet all top my list of great things about being in Houston. And no matter how long I’m gone, I manage to find ways to cope with not having my aforementioned loves. However, there is one all-consuming love in which I’ve not found a suitable substitute:  Tex-Mex.

In Singapore and China, I was so desperate for a taste of home that I actually ordered queso and enchiladas at “American” restaurants. Can you imagine? I must have been out of my mind. Even in the good ole USA, I’ve eaten rubbery fajitas and soggy nachos in places like Memphis and Las Vegas. Folks, it’s like putting a band-aid on a broken arm. Nothing quenches my desire for the greasy goodness that is Tex-Mex like a trip home, specifically to Chuy’s.

Texas Chuy's

Chuy’s opened in 1982 in an abandoned barbecue restaurant in Austin. With $20 to decorate the place, founders, Mike Young and John Zapp, went with mis-matched tile floors and a velvet Elvis painting on the wall. Classy joint, right? What the place looked like didn’t matter much; their goal was to serve fresh and affordable Mexican food. Thirty years later, and this little hole-in-the-wall has expanded to 35 locations throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee.

Chuy_Decor

Each restaurant is different, but they all have a typically-Austin funky vibe. No matter which Chuy’s you visit, you’re sure to see hubcaps hanging from the ceiling, mis-matched tile floors, eclectic and colorful art, wooden fish, and the largest concentration of Elvis paraphernalia outside of Graceland (or so it seems).

Chuy_Decor2

The atmosphere is lively and a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth. Vibrant colors fill the every available corner, along with paintings and nicknacks that look as if they were acquired from a swap meet. The waitstaff even has an Austin feel and seem as if they’ve been imported from the state’s capitol. Each don Chuy’s t-shirts with funny slogans like, “I’d hit that” alongside a picture of a colorful piñata.

Chuy_People

Although every hour I’m in Chuy’s is happy, it gets even more happy Monday through Friday from 4-7. During this time, the Elvis Presley Memorial Nacho Car is filled with free chips, queso, salsa, taco meat, and beans. And it really is a car! The trunks of vintage cars have been cut off and attached to the bar walls. Customers can help themselves to a bounty of free food and enjoy drink specials from the bar.

People come for the margaritas as much as the Tex-Mex. Frozen or on the rocks, swirl, dot, or flavored, the margaritas at Chuy’s reign supreme. Another favorite is the Texas Martini. Tequila, Cointreau, and freshly-squeezed lime juice are shaken and poured into a martini glass then topped off with a jalapeño-stuffed olive.

Chuy_Bar

The atmosphere and drinks are all well and good, but what keeps me coming back is the food. I know there are mom and pop places out in West and South Texas that might serve up better and more authentic Tex-Mex, but for consistency, convenience, and over-all variety, I will always choose Chuy’s. Their tortillas are hand-rolled and made fresh throughout the day, as is their salsa.

Chuy_Food

With signature dishes like chile rellenos, tortilla soup, the Chuychanga, and the steak burrito, there’s something to satisfy everyone’s tastebuds. Chuy’s never takes themselves too seriously, which is obvious by the way they name their food; Chicka-Chicka Boom-Boom and Big as Yo’ Face Burritos are two of my favorites.

When it comes to ordering, I aways get the same thing. In fact, I’ve been going to Chuy’s since 1992 and I can’t remember ever eating anything but the grilled shrimp tacos. They are not on the menu, but nobody has ever batted an eye at my order. Fresh flour tortillas are filled with spicy grilled shrimp, cilantro, purple cabbage, and creamy jalapeño sauce.

What’s creamy jalapeño sauce, you ask?

Chuys_CreamyJalapeno

Creamy jalapeño is quite literally heaven in a bowl and is the REAL reason I always go back to Chuy’s. It’s addictive. It’s delicious. It’s the closest thing to crack I can imagine. Have I built up this ranch-flavored, mayonnaise-based goodness enough? This stuff is so special that it’s not even on the menu. You’ll have to ask for it by name. Don’t forget! Your tortilla chips and mouth will never forgive you.

Forget chili, if I had the power, I’d name Tex-Mex the state food of Texas. The spiciness, rich flavors, and fresh ingredients that make up Tex-Mex keep me anchored to my home state. And the creamy jalapeño and grilled shrimp tacos at Chuy’s? Well, they’ve got me in a stranglehold.

Want to try creamy jalapeño but don’t live anywhere near a Chuy’s? Here’s a copy-cat recipe you can try.

Leah Walker

Leah’s a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that’s in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah’s thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don’t extend to speaking French. Yet.

54 Comments

  1. Chuy’s is my all-time favorite Tex-Mex place! Your review totally nailed it, Leah. I’m glad you included the creamy jalapeno sauce at the end or I was going to have to deduct major points! 😉

    1. There is no Chuy’s (in my mind, at least) without the creamy jalapeno. I might storm the kitchen if they told me they were out. I’d burn down the corporate office if they discontinued it (ok, not really). It’d be mass chaos on the street of Texas! Whew…just the thought of that makes me upset.

        1. You’re welcome. I’ve not tried that particular one, but it gets good reviews. If you don’t like that recipe, just google Chuy’s creamy jalapeno. You’ll get tons more choices. Frankly, I just run down the street and buy it in bulk when I’m having a party or just want to drink it with a shot glass. 🙂

  2. Chuy’s might not taste like the Mexican food you’re used to, Mary, but I think you’d love it just the same. Put it on your itinerary the next time you’re in any of the cities pictured on my map.

    1. I’ve threatened to empty out my shampoo and put that sauce in the bottles when I know I’ll be gone for a while. It hasn’t got to that point…yet…but Go with Oh and Europe is around the corner, so it just might happen. Aren’t you in Asia still? I’m not sure it’ll keep. When you get back to the USA, I’ll see what I can do. 🙂

  3. I got to eat there for the first time the end of July. I love the creamy jalapeno sauce and already have figured out a way to duplicate it, nearly, but I will give the recipe you offered a try. I was not overly impressed with the food, but loved the atmosphere and the experience, and I will go back. I hear that Lubbock is getting one of their own in the near future.

    1. Mexican food, like barbeque is a hotly-debated topic in the Lone Star state. For every mouth there is also a varying opinion. Having lived in so many parts of the state, I can see and taste a difference in the Tex-Mex in each of those regions. Head out to El Paso or Midland/Odessa and things seem to be a bit spicier, which I love as well. Laredo and Brownsville offer up even a different flavor. I’d love to go on tour finding the best each region has to offer. You hear that, Texas Tourism?!? How about a Tex-Mex road trip!

      I can’t guarantee that recipe, but it did come highly recommended. The one and only time I tried to make creamy jalapeno, it turned out awful. I tried to use low-cal ingredients. What a disaster! Threw the whole thing out and drove on down to Chuy’s for the real deal.

  4. The beef fajita Panchos are my go-to meal at Chuy’s. I have learned to make it a half order after filling up on the creamy jalapeno, table sauce, and chips over the years. Chuy’s has a great deal on carry out appetizers that we serve at our Super Bowl party every year.

    1. I agree. If you’re going to order a meal, make sure not to fill up on chips and sauces before your food comes, otherwise you’ll be taking home a doggie bag…which isn’t a bad thing. More Chuy’s for later!

    1. Ahhh, yes, Tawny. Alas, you live in the land of no good Tex-Mex. I smell a road trip coming on for Captain and Clark. I can see the video now: The fearless C & C crossing the Rocky Mountains and desert just for a taste of creamy jalapeño and enchiladas. I hear a crescendo of music when you finally reach your destination…a Chuy’s parking lot. I’ll be fine with a closing credit mention.

    1. Craig knows; he’s just onry. Yes, Craig, I said “onry.” You Yanks know it as “ornery,” but it’s “onry” here in Texas, and Texans know it well. 🙂

  5. Yes, Craig, Texas is in the Union. We were the 28th state to join in 1845. If you’re thinking of the Civil War, no, Texas was not in the Union at that time.

  6. I have to confess I just don’t like Mexican food (even Tex-Mex). There’s just a flavor (and I can’t even tell you what it is) in the food that doesn’t sit well with my taste buds. I know people LOVE Mexican food but it’s just not for me. Sure, I’ve eaten it more times than I can count and there is ALWAYS something I will eat. However, it’s not my favorite and I will never choose to go to any type of Mexican restaurant if the choice is up to me.

    However, I would love to try the creamy jalapeno sauce – looks delicious (as all heart attack inducing foods tend to be)!

    1. Oh, dear, Jeremy. Just when I started to believe you had good taste. 😉 Perhaps the flavor you don’t care for is cilantro. People, even lovers of Mexican food, tend to have a strong opinion about it. BUT, you are right on about the creamy jalapeno. I’d like to take a gallon of it to the Texas State Fair and just go to town for one afternoon. As you said, I’d need to have my phone handy for the eventual 9-1-1 call though.

    2. dear Jeremy,

      you clearly have not had the proper mexican food or you wouldn’t feel this way. spicy issues is one thing but your excuse sounds like cali-mex which isn’t tex-mex at all. damn. i’m hungry all over again!

      xo – lola

  7. A good mattress and mounds of shoes is definitely something to look forward to after a trip! I’m with you on that one. 😀 Trying Tex Mex in Asia, huh? I’ve tried Mexican food in Europe – somehow I don’t think that a side of shredded cabbage goes with burritos… It’s great to have a place like the one you describe – one you’ve been going to for years and one that has never failed you. Your TX Tuesdays are fun!

    1. Haha! Yeah, shredded cabbage might not go with a burrito, but it would go with a fish or shrimp taco. Perhaps they were a bit confused. Mexican in Asia might not have been the best idea, but it was ok in a pinch. Of course, I’ve had salsa served to me in the states (outside of Texas, of course) that was essentially tomato sauce with some black pepper. Seriously? Lesson learned.

    1. I march to a beat of my own drummer, Ayngelina. We Texans criticize Mexican for not being Tex-Mex. It just shows our arrogance, I’m afraid. 🙂

  8. I think I am going to have to ask you to cancel the Texas Tuesday thingie you started. It is disturbing my quiet life in England and is making me super hungry. It is disruptive and provocative and I am warning you – I have your address – or I know “people”

    PS. mex being a recent discovery for Mr and Mrs O, something tells me I would almost kill for those margaritas 😉 and the quesadillas, and the nachos.. you get the idea!

    1. Does Mrs. O long to leave her serene life in the English countryside? Does she want to shake things up with a visit to the wild, wild west? Come on, Mrs. O. I’ll show you Texas, and I promise at least one stay in a W Hotel. Is that a deal?

  9. God smiled on Atlanta when a Chuy’s opened there some time ago. The creamy jalapeño is delicious. Simply so. I enjoy the lively atmosphere too. Having said that, I can’t wait to get back to Texas and get to sample more Tex-Mex with my Texan friends!

    1. I like that, “God smiled on Atlanta when a Chuy’s opened…” You should copyright that before they put on one of their t-shirts. Better yet, license the slogan to them and demand 50% of the profits. You could take the proceeds and use it on your Romanian orphanage hike. {I’ll take 10% for the idea.}

  10. I want Tex-Mex now yum. WIll have to add it to my Texas to-do list. Every week I’m more and more drawn into the state of Texas, love the posts! Time to go eat, I’m hungry now haha. 🙂

    1. I’m so sorry, Aaron. I don’t want to be held responsible for your spike in weight. I’ll cool it on the food posts for a bit. I’ve still got that one with you up my sleeve though. 🙂 Come to Texas! I’ll take you to my favorite coffee place.

  11. So…this may come as a shock to you, so I want you to brace yourself OK? I don’t like Mexican food. I know, I know…shocker. My wife on the other hand, could eat it every meal of the day. Thankfully our little joint here in town also has a cheeseburger on the menu. No, I’m not kidding. Anyway, safe to say she would love Chuy’s

    1. Well, D.J., you and Jeremy can just go have a boring meal of cheeseburgers (or the like) while everyone else with finely-tuned taste buds gorge ourselves on fajitas, enchiladas, and tortilla soup. I figured your wife had great taste considering who she married, but her love of Mexican food confirms it. You just send her over from Florida and I’ll take her on a Tex-Mex tour.

  12. Hold up just one second…CREAMY JALAPENO SAUCE?!?!?!?! I think I just had a food-gasm.

    That sounds amazing, and the restaurant looks almost as amazing – it’s so kitschy and chintzy! Exactly my kind of place. Time to open a subsidy here in Korea, methinks…

    1. I’m sorry, Tom, I’ve really been killing you with the food posts lately. I promise, no more for a while. Can you imagine a Chuy’s in Korea? I think you’re on to something. Partners?

  13. After living in Mexico for sometime I really learned the difference between Tex-Mex and Mexican…. many have their opinions, but I say yes to both. And next time I am in the southern Tex-Mex belt, I’ll look to stop by Chuy’s and give it a go… and apparently taste the not-so secret sauce.

    stay adventurous, Craig

    1. I love both Mexican and Tex-Mex, too. Although there are similar flavors and ingredients, the combination of those make all the difference. Nothing says comfort food to me like Tex-Mex though. Do stop by Chuy’s and let me know what you think.

  14. This post made me SO hungry – all of that food looks delicious! For some reason, Chuy’s looks familiar, I think I may have eaten there while visiting Dallas back in 2006. After reading this, I definitely have to make my way down to Texas again soon!

    1. It’s quite possible, Erin. Chuy’s isn’t like any other place…often imitated, but never duplicated. 🙂

  15. There is a Chuy’s right by my office in Atlanta and it’s one of my favorite lunch spots. I eventually ended up ordering small ala carte tacos because I would ALWAYS fill up on the chips before my food was even delivered – they’re so good.

    1. Smart man, John. I only order my shrimp tacos ala carte. When I lived in Atlanta there was one decent Mexican place in Buckhead. I’m glad to know that things have improved in the last 15 years.

  16. This place looks awesome. I love the Elvis with a sombrero. The food, atmosphere, and margaritas make this a place right up my alley. Thanks for the tip. Whenever I come to Texas, I will seek a Chuy’s Restaurant out.

    1. Ted, they’re building one in Knoxville. You can hit up a UT game and have some creamy jalapeño! Sounds like a winning weekend to me.

  17. Too bad there is no Chuy’s in Illinois! I could get nasty on some grilled shrimp tacos and creamy jalapeno sauce… Another excellent write-up, Leah. I could practically taste the food you describe and feel Chuy’s funky vibe.

    1. What a fantastic compliment, Francesca. Thank you so much. I think Bowling Green, Indiana would be your closest one. Looks like you’ll just have to finally make it down South.

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