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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.