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Apr 20, 2011 11:20 AM

El Real

Been to El Real twice now and really enjoy it for what it is, good down home old school Tex/Mex. Puffy tacos here aren't Henry's Puffy Tacos good but they are good. In fact the the picadillo filling is better, the puffy just isn't as good IMO but its still good. The smooked chkn version is pretty tasty but could be even better with quacomole.
The cheese enhiladas will be the standard for cheese enchiladas are judged in Houston. These were Richmond Drive Inn in Richmond, Texas 19070's-80's good. They rival the old Blanco Cafe in San Antonio. Dark rich chili with a nice hint but not too much cumin. Beans are silky goodness.
Chips and salsa are very good as well.

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  1. I agree about the cheese enchiladas...worth the trip.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Lambowner

      Are we talking about El Real at 1201 Westheimer?

      Reviews elsewhere are pretty mixed.

      It's a pretty long drive for me. If you had to suggest one can't-miss dish, what would it be?

      (Meant to reply to the OP)

      1. re: DoobieWah

        Cheese enchilada's for sure. i have only had cheese enchiladas and puffy tacos though. Knowing that Robb Walsh is a cheese enchilada snob, that's where I would look when I eat there again.
        Someone mentioned that the tortillas were very good, I haven't had them but might go in that direction next time there.

        I don't personally understand the mixed reviews? If you are thinking new Tex/Mex in the tyle of say El Tiempo then you might miss this. If you think Lopez or even Felix then you are going to enjoy.

        1. re: jscarbor

          Mixed reviews came from B4. Check it out.

          As for enchis, I grew up in Houston.

          To me a cheese enchilada is a corn tube of gooey yellow deliciousness, often plated with tacky rice, bland refritos and if you're lucky, a pretty good tamale. Extra chopped onions always.

          Am I close?

          1. re: DoobieWah

            I just realized this is the Caswell/Walsh venture. (I'm sure you thought I would know that.)

            HA! They misspelled Caswell's name on the Floyd bio, (Second paragraph). Or maybe Sam is a partner?


            That's embarrassing.

            1. re: DoobieWah

              Yeah, that's it but better. I got the lunch plate and it does not come with a tamale but I am pretty sure the regular enchi plate does. The beans are very good IMO.
              On their own website the name is missplelled! WOW!

              1. re: jscarbor

                Missplelled. Hehe. I agree, the beans, made with lard are richly flavored. Gooey yellow cheese, yes. Chunky dark colored chile con carne, delicious. I wish I had taken a picture (eaten there twice now), but they look a whole lot like those that rotate in the picture spot in Robb Walsh's website. Or used to.

                Robb hisownself came by our table both times and chatted. Nice fellow. He didn't plant his garden this year (last year was bumper lettuce crop if you were following).

                El Real is about the whole experience, though. The old theater (sob!), the old movies playing, the posters of Tex-Mex establishments now gone, the refurbished chairs from El Felix. It just feels like Houston.

      2. We happened to be in Rosenberg/Richmond area yesterday and stopped in Larry's. Old time waiter, who actually knew the menu. My Deluxe plate was just what the doctor ordered. Cheese enchilada on one HOT plate, tamale, rice and beans on another plate with a chalupa, and a chili con queso and taco on another plate. The guacamole was served first with a fresh piece of lettuce that was very good. El Real could take lessons from Larry's. The chili and enchilada sauce had just the right amount of seasonings. A little more would have took it over the top to where it would have been bitter, like El Real. Wife's plate was not so good. pork ribs that appeared to be oven roasted with no flavor whatsoever. Apparently there's been a problem because when we said something to the cashier, he immediately took this dinner off the check, no questions asked!

        2 Replies
        1. re: rexster314

          And as a matter of fact, hasn't Robb Walsh hizownself recommended the cheese enchiladas at Larry's?

          Really a classic old-school TexMex place. So I've found that you're much better off ordering really classic old-school TexMex dishes there (rather than the ribs, etc.).

          I thought about Larry's during the recent "no good TexMex in Houston" flap.

          1. re: Jaymes

            I think you mean this.


            "Not like Larry's," he says. "Most Mexican restaurants in Houston these days are an evolution beyond the original Tex-Mex. They're citified. They're better at fajitas and other stuff. You can still get cheese enchiladas in Houston, but it's not the thing you think of. When I want enchiladas, I go to Larry's."

        2. Thanks for your review. I have put off going until some of the furor died down, just in case those complaining that the kitchen hadn’t even finished refining the recipes yet were right (unbelievable). I finally decided to go after reading your report. I have suspected that the complaints from people about how bad it is are coming mainly from people who haven’t been around long enough to experience old-style Tex-Mex and know how good it could be and are expecting something very different.

          I thought the chips and salsa were unremarkable but I didn’t care. I honestly don’t remember what they were like in the old days. I also don’t care about fajitas or Margaritas. Tex-Mex always has meant and always will mean one of the old combo plates to me so I went for the Original Regular Dinner - 2 cheese enchiladas, 1 tamale, plus rice and beans.

          One taste of the refritos and I was in Heaven. One taste of the chili gravy and I went somewhere beyond that and started to tear up. I probably have had refritos that good at a Tex-Mex restaurant, although I can’t remember when or where right now, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never had chili gravy that good.

          The tamale I am conflicted about. Good? Yes. Better than most of the machine made varieties served at most Tex-Mex restaurants today? Yes. But I have been very enamored of the hand-made tamales from Alamo for several years now and I can’t say this was as good much less better. It was a bit dry - could have used a bit more chili gravy (or lard, maybe).

          I don’t eat Tex-Mex very often anymore but this will be my go-to place from now on. I pity anyone who wasn’t around to know when old-style Tex-Mex was this good. I feel sorry for anyone who can go there now and walk away thinking the food was awful.

          12 Replies
          1. re: brucesw

            Hear, hear, brucesw, I love it when food jerks tears. My own better half cried tears down his cheeks when eating chicken hearts at Feast the first time. Reminded him of his grandmother, God rest her soul.

            As far as Tex-Mex, I grew up in Fort Bend County and was there when Larry's was the only. About 10 years ago, I went back and the cheese enchiladas were not edible. I mean, the cheese was a solid block, narsty. Maybe that was a bad day. I wonder how many changes in ownership there has been.

            I grew immediately fond of El Real's cheese enchiladas, like an old friend. But my "go to" place remains Lopez for all things good (except maybe their fajitas, which don't count cause I don't order fajitas)

            1. re: Lambowner

              Some people can't understand our love affair with TexMex. I saw Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmerman trash it, to them it's seasoned ground beef and formed taco shells. Then Bourdain and his buddy Carlos from Les Halle did it again on another show. Carlos is from Puebla so I can give him a pass. Bourdain has probably only had YankeeMex so he is clueless. I have yet to go to El Real, but it's a matter of when not if. There was a place in Richmond just across the river in the 90's that served great cheese enchiladas, Blanco's I think. It was on the same side of Alt 90 as Larry's, I think it's now a bail bond.

              3406 W Alabama St, Houston, TX 77027

              1. re: James Cristinian

                El Real might be a good candidate for a meet-up.

                1. re: Jaymes

                  This sounds good to me and I would be interested if plans are afoot. I definitely want to go again.

                  1. re: brucesw

                    As a matter of fact, plans are afoot. How about a late lunch - around 1 - next Thursday?

                        1. re: Jaymes

                          I wish I could meet up but can't skip out of work on a Thursday on short notice. I'm also going to have to put El Real on the back burner for a while, as my bride's cholesterol numbers came in high, and it's fish and chicken for both of us for a bit. We also got a freebie Carraba's gift card, so that's going to be our fat splurge for the near future. We love watching them cook at the seats by the kitchen at the Kirby location. We've got some vacation in July, maybe we can meet up somewhere.

                          1. re: Jaymes

                            I have just reread Alison Cook's recent review and am looking forward to another great meal. I wish I wasn't still seeing comments about the kitchen still not getting the recipes right, etc.

                            1. re: brucesw

                              I guess today is the day for the meet up! And Cinco de Mayo, too, so go early or late. I'm stuck behind a desk.

                  2. re: James Cristinian

                    Was the old place in Richmond the Richmond Drive Inn?
                    Agree about Lopez but I do get the fajitas there and I ask for grilled jalepeno's with it.
                    Best chili gravy I have had is Blanco's Cafe, the one close to Chris Madrid's in San Antonio.

                    3406 W Alabama St, Houston, TX 77027

                    1. re: jscarbor

                      I don't think that's the one, but it's been a while so who knows.

              2. We had a very enjoyable meet-up and meal yesterday. I enjoyed meeting and chatting with Jaymes and two ladies from the Ladies who Lunch group on eG who came all the way up from Clear Lake. The restaurant was surprisingly only 1/3 full at 1pm.

                I thought the menu was a lot larger than before and there was a page of lunch specials that I don't remember from my first visit.

                We shared the queso and guacamole, both excellent. I was thinking of asking for the off the menu arbol salsa as recommended by Alison Cook but I thought the regular salsa was better than before and had more heat this time. It is served warm

                I was torn between the El Gallo Verde - green chile chicken enchiladas - and the Old Borunda style stacked enchiladas of West Texas. I have wanted to try the latter since first reading about them in Walsh's Tex Mex Cookbook and I don't know anyplace around here that does them.

                I finally decided on the green chile chicken while Jaymes and one of the other ladies went for the stacked enchiladas with an added egg, so at least I got to see them. The other lady went for the cheese enchilada plate. Everyone was very pleased with their food. I'll let Jaymes speak for herself but I thought my plate was even more impressive than what I had on the first visit. I'm wondering if the richness and depth of the chili gravy can be attributed to the use of leaf lard? I'm sure the fact that they prepare the spices fresh each day is a factor, too. I didn't take my camera and the pictures taken by one of the other ladies didn't come out unfortunately. It was very dim in the restaurant.

                I think the only glitch was that I ordered my dish off the lunch menu and I'm pretty sure the regular order was delivered and we were charged for it. It was more food that I needed but I finished it anyway (and had only 2 vanilla wafers, 4 poppy seed/thyme crackers and a small apple the rest of the day). This food is very filling and sticks with you.

                I have had two very good visits here. I'm still not a huge fan of Tex-Mex but I can't wait to go back to this place. I still haven't toured the upstairs gallery.

                2 Replies
                1. re: brucesw

                  Thanks for the report and I'm looking forward to Jaymes'.

                  I'm doing the MFA Impressionist exhibit and the Menil tomorrow, so I am going to try to persuade my friend to have lunch here. (And I'm very persuasive!)

                  1. re: DoobieWah

                    I thought the afternoon was just about perfect in every way. We lingered for a long time, munching and chatting and talking it all over.

                    For starters, the ambience was not what I expected. Not typical "Mexican" at all. The mood was modern, sleek, minimal and industrial, but still quite welcoming and cozy. I think they've done a good job with the renovation. In a nod to the theater beginnings of the building, there was even a large screen at one end, playing old black & white westerns. Clever.

                    I know that salsa and guac are usually pretty good, so it's hard to distinguish, but I thought the guac and salsa were really good. Particularly good. Good enough that I might go back just for that. The salsa was a cooked salsa ranchero, the norm in Houston restaurants, but so flavorful. There were little black bits in it, and it was clear that at least some of the ingredients had been roasted. The guac had a few big chunks of avocado, perfect for chasing down with your chip. No one flavor dominated. It was just really good.

                    I did have the Brunda Stacked Enchiladas. I do have that TexMex cookbook, but didn't remember reading about that recipe. When others mentioned it, and I noted the menu description ("Enchiladas Borunda - West Texas stacked enchiladas, tender pork, guajillo chile"), thought that sounded pretty perfect, so I got it, along with the fried egg on top, as is the Sonoran style.

                    I thought it was absolutely wonderful. This isn't the sort of stunning, startling, unexpected, "over the top" El Bulli food about which one goes into gales of wild rhapsodic praise. It's comfort food, and the kind I grew up on. And I loved it. The level of heat was just right; the chunks of pork flavorful and tender in the dark reddish guajillo chile sauce. After the first bite, I kind of relaxed and settled in to enjoy it, almost grateful that this was going to be no disappointment. I lived in southern New Mexico for a number of years, and often think back fondly to the stacked enchiladas with the egg on top. In many ways, this was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me.

                    Summing it up, I'd say that I heartily recommend this restaurant. Honestly, if I lived nearby, I'm sure I'd be a happy and grateful regular.

                    And as far as my dining companions go, they were perfect, too. I'm hopeful this was only the first in a long series of meet-ups.

                2. Finally had lunch here on Saturday before the Museum of Fine Arts. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist exhibit with works from the permanent collection and the National Museum in DC was great. Many well-known works on display - always a treat.

                  I had the Enchilada Plate #7, two cheese enchiladas with black beans and rice. The flavor of the enchilada was very nostalgic and as suggested, made me go "Oh yeah, I remember those!".

                  Additionally I also ordered a puffy taco with picadillo. They also offer pork and chicken. They do NOT offer an combo plate with enchilada and puffy taco, but they really should. The taco is very unique and delicious. It's not what I have had as a "puffy taco" in the past, but I loved it.

                  Two things I will quibble about. The chips they brought out are my favorite style, thin and crisp and just oily enough to hold the salt on. Perfect. However, I didn't really care for the salsa. It had a background flavor note that reminded me of dirty dishwater. I'm not sure what it was, but it was off-putting to me.

                  I also don't care for the sauce they serve with enchiladas. They called it a "Friday sauce". I don't know what that means but it is very chunky and I really objected more to the texture than the flavor. It wasn't "bad" just different and I didn't feel like it worked with the dish as well as a smoother sauce would have.

                  It's a cool space and the food is very retro, very reasonable and as noted above brings a sense of "the nostalgic" as well as "the delicious". I would definitely go again.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: DoobieWah

                    Thanks for the report. Glad you liked it. I didn't care for the salsa on my first visit but thought it was much better on the second. I loved the sauce on the enchiladas. I too wondered about the lack of more combo plates.

                    1. re: DoobieWah

                      Yes, Bruce said that he hadn't liked the salsa much the first time he went there. Said it was much better when we all went. That was the only time I've had it, but I thought it was particularly good. I suppose it could be the difference in preferences, but I thought it was outstanding.