It’s something of an unofficial rule that you have to try something twice to know if it’s really good or bad. I didn’t need a second try at Chuy’s, which is easily my least favorite Tex-Mex-for-Gringos restaurant in Texas. But I got a second helping, and a third, thanks to my parents, who love the place and want to eat there for Mother’s Day and for birthdays and sometimes just because. In fact, I didn’t really need a first taste to know I wouldn’t like it.
For one thing, I recognized the name because of a minor scandal involving former President Bush’s moronic daughters’ attempt to purchase alcohol. For another, I recognized immediately the décor of a franchise restaurant that desperately wants to appear quirky and unique. I don’t have a problem with franchise restaurants per se, but whenever a franchise attempts the shtick that Chuy’s relies on – usually with stupid T-shirts and a clashing color scheme appealing to what white people think Mexican interior design looks like – it either annoys a customer, or shows how much of a rube they are (you can never trust somebody that owns a restaurant T-shirt without having worked there). The interior is such an ugly combination of "creatively" arranged mismatched floor tiles and garishly painted walls that look so shitty, it feels like walking into a giant clown's rectum with mise-en-scene by Mario Bava.
Example: the Chuy’s that I ate at is not ten miles from The Plano Tortilla Factory, a restaurant genuinely owned and operated by Mexican immigrants. They make the best empanadas I’ve ever had that weren’t made in a home kitchen. Nowhere in their establishment is there a painting of dogs playing pool or a hubcap covered wall or ceiling to be found. I checked. They don’t sell shirts with cartoon Mexicans or unfunny catch phrases, and they don’t have Christmas lights covering their exterior. They sell food.
Chuy’s sells food too, and it isn’t that good. At least, not as good as it should be for what they charge. Tex-Mex isn’t exactly complicated food. Even the sauces can be made without a great deal of effort provided you have a basic knowledge of how to cook, with some obvious exceptions (mole can be tricky, no doubt). It is senseless to pay $7.99 for a plate of cheese enchiladas, ranchero sauce, rice, beans and garnish (the “Classic Tex-Mex”), especially when there is nothing special about the recipe being used. In fact, there isn’t anything unique on the menu. Browsing their web site, they proudly state where each of their sauce recipes came from. Again, nothing wrong with that, but I could get this same food at a restaurant without the obnoxious, clashing tiles, the ugly bar pictures, and the stupidly large margarita glasses for six dollars.
On Mother’s day, my parents decided to order tres leches cake for desert. Our server went through the achingly dull process of explaining what tres leches cake was when they asked about deserts (the pastor at my parent’s church routinely asks my mom when she’ll make him another tres leches cake, as if he were a hungry dog she once fed expensive cake out of pity). When the waitress finally took the order and left, there was some discussion at the table about how silly it was for her to go through all that trouble to explain a desert that my family enjoys pretty regularly. I finally had to break in. The Jalapeno Ranch (creamy Jalapeno, they call it), the stupid shirts, the variety of margaritas, the Elvis theme and stereotypical faux-knick-nacky decoration: this is all quintessential of Mexican food for gringos. Why would you expect them not to assume we didn't know what tres leches cake was?
My family likes Tex-Mex food, and I confess that I don’t. Expectedly, they enjoy Chuy’s, and I don’t. Still, I also feel no qualms about saying that unless you’re going to Chuy’s in Austin to laugh about eating in the place where George W. Bush’s then underage daughters tried to buy mix drinks, don’t bother with Chuy’s. Go eat real Tex-Mex. Hell, go eat real Mexican cuisine. There’s plenty of it around and most of it is better than the boring stuff that you’ll be over charged for at Chuy’s. If you're not familiar with this kind of food, you'll be doing yourself a favor.