Friday, June 28, 2013

Mi Chula's ~ Southlake, Texas

Mi Chula's opened right around the time I started this blog, but maybe surprising to you all, this ended up being our first visit here. The reason I'd held off was because of the fact that I knew it was related to Uncle Julio's, and figured it was just a "fast casual" variation of the same restaurant. Now we like Uncle Julio's, even though I haven't added it to this blog yet - primarily because it's been many a year since we last dined there. And, quite frankly, there are better options out there. And more or less, our presumption was correct: Mi Chula's is a quick service, order-at-the-counter, limited menu version of Uncle Julio's. In a nutshell, Mi Chula's is to Uncle Julio's what Pei Wei is to PF Changs. And, perhaps not surprisingly, they are located very close to one another - literally across the street. In reading articles from around 2008 or so, it's apparent from the beginning they were hoping to clone and franchise the concept for fast growth. But other than one opening in Plano, which has since shut down, Mi Chula's exists solely at this one location in Southlake.

We happened to be in the area, and decided to give it a try out of convenience. And... we loved it. Go figure. I'm a big fan of New Mexico styled red enchiladas, and so I tried one of those with chicken, and had a ground beef enchilada with chile con carne. Mrs. RJG went with one enchilada verde, and we both had the rice and borracho beans. Everything was excellent. I love their red chile sauce, and the seasoning of the chicken, which clearly happened before they were rolled into the tortilla. The verde is an excellent tomatillo sauce, not too bitter or sour as it sometimes can be. The Mexican rice was full, fluffy, and tasty. Perhaps the borracho beans were a bit of a disappointment, a bit too much lard for my liking. Mrs. RJG enjoyed it more than I.

Prior to our meal, of course, were the chips and salsa which are brought to your table after you order. The chips are the extra thin kind you get at the major chains like Chili's. It's OK, but I prefer a bit more thickness so they don't break in the salsa bowl (plus I prefer the real corn taste of homemade chips). Their basic red sauce is a roasted chile, and is really good. They do offer a hotter sauce if you ask, and out came this very fine green tomatillo. Definitely more fiery, and had a splendid taste.

I also went for a frozen margarita, which was really quite good - not too sweet as they sometimes can be.

Prices are about what you would pay at a full service restaurant (minus service costs of course), and the food does come out quick if that's what you're looking for.

We were very pleasantly surprised at the overall quality. We'll definitely be returning. I would say, however, it serves better as a lunch option than dinner.

Website

Mi Chula's Good Mexican on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Torchy's Tacos ~ Southlake, Texas

When I was a kid in the late 60s and early 70s, one of my favorite comic books was Hot Stuff, the Little Devil. What does that say about the parenting in those days, eh? What says wholesome like reading about a devil in a diaper! Of course he performed good deeds, but still.... Anyway, it appears Torchy's felt it the perfect emblem for their budding chain, and even add the moniker "Damn Good Tacos", which they proudly light up in the interior of the restaurant. My, such potty mouths...

Austin based Torchy's is the latest high end taco place to infiltrate Northeast Tarrant county. Like their brethren Fuzzy's, Funky Baja's, Taco Diner, and Tacos y Mas, Torchy's provides a range of tacos far beyond the usual crunchy ground beef, or taqueria styled "street tacos". Ingredients such as pork green chile, fried chicken, ahi tuna, blackened salmon, jalapeno sausage, and jerk chicken, with an array of salsa's to choose from, is what you'll find at Torchy's.

Mrs. RJG and I recently tried Torchy's for the first time, and sampled four of their tacos: Green Chile Pork, Trailer Park, Baja Shrimp, and Chicken Fajita. As well we had three of their salsa's (all conveniently served in a small plastic cup): Tomatillo, Chipotle, and Diablo. And I'm glad to say that everything was absolutely excellent. The tacos are big, per urban protocol, and are loaded with meats, pico, and other fillings depending on the taco. The Green Chile Pork was a bit dry, with very few green chilies, but had a great flavor. It's definitely not the type of green chile one would find in New Mexico or Colorado, but we already guessed that going in. The Trailer Park is a fried chicken taco. One option is to get it "trashy" with queso instead of lettuce, but I wanted to keep it from being too messy so I didn't choose that route. The Baja Shrimp is fried, and superb. And the fajita chicken has a wonderful marinate and a great flavor. The green Tomatillo and the creamy Chipotle sauces were both excellent, the latter having a mild kick. The Diablo sauce is also creamy and reminds me a lot of Fresco's Chile de Arbol salsa. They say it's habanero, but I honestly didn't get the habanero taste this time. And while it was hot, it wasn't screaming spicy. But it was still our favorite. Of course it was...

As well, and it's not readily apparent on their website, Torchy's offers adult beverages like beer and frozen margarita's. I had the latter, and it's a very tasty mix. They serve it in a small plastic cup, but it packs a punch.

If I had to nitpick, I'd say Torchy's is a bit pricey compared to the competition. Considering Torchy's tacos are on par with those at Funky Baja's (size, ingredients), I think we have an apples to apples situation. Funky Baja's charges $3 each, while Torchy's range from $3.25 to $4.75 depending. And the margarita was $4.50, which sounds good until you realize just how small it is. It's a minor gripe, and will have zero impact on our willingness to continue repeat visits, but for those who are on tighter budgets, it might be a tougher sell.

The interior features fun paintings with Torchy's Little Devil embedded into famous art scenes, e.g. Dali's "The Persistence of Memory" and Van Gogh's "The Starry Night".

Torchy's is a great addition to the Northeast Tarrant taco landscape. We'll be returning. Many times I hope.

As an aside, based on some recent feedback, it's been requested nicely not to call these type of taco restaurants "taquerias", and I have to agree with their point of view. So I've come up with a new nomenclature called "Tacos y Margaritas", and I will update the other entries as appropriate.

January 2014 update: Ever since we first came here, Torchy's Tacos has remained very popular with lines out the door. It appears they have a license to print money. On this visit, Mrs. RJG and I were with Official Niece #1 (age 21) and we enjoyed a quick snack of one taco each. My favorite has become The Republican, which comes with a perfectly spiced jalapeno grilled sausage, cut in half, and get that with the Diablo sauce. Which they always forget to include. Niece #1 had The Democrat, what is basically their beef barbacoa taco, which she enjoyed but it had "too much meat" (how is that possible? asks Uncle RJG) for her tastes. However that didn't stop her from cleaning up the basket with a fork later on. And Mrs. RJG had Mr. Orange (blackened salmon), and could now be considered her favorite taco here. Since we were their only for a snack, I didn't imbibe in one of their potent margaritas - something that was hard to give up, but alas I had to take one for the team. Sigh. 


Torchy's Tacos on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Cafe Herrera ~ Dallas, Texas

A few years ago, I wrote about the RJG's history with Herrera's, especially the Carrollton, Maple Avenue, and Oak Lawn locations. The Carrollton location closed, and it appears the venerable family of Tex-Mex restaurateurs pooled their money for a much nicer location in the trendy multi-use Mockingbird Station area (Central Expressway and Mockingbird). My original intention was to revisit the Oak Lawn location, but since Mrs. RJG and I needed to run over to Kuby's to buy a pile of their awesome sausages (especially Italian - both hot and mild) for the next few months, the new location was much more convenient. So let's give it a try shall we?

For those expecting a dingy cafe, with plastic tablecloths, black vinyl booths with stuffing coming out, and a worn out menu with a sleepy Mexican guy wanting his menudo, then you're in for a surprise. So what exactly does an old school institution do to draw in a more well-heeled clientele? For starters, you reverse your name from the breakfast sounding Herrera's Cafe to the tres hip modern sounding Cafe Herrera. Then you actually furnish the restaurant with all nicely done, hand carved dark wood pieces and interior. The menu's look and feel is now like those steakhouse places - and it weighs a ton. And you no longer mess with the gauche 99 cents ending on each entree. Then you add a full bar including frozen cocktails (the original Herrera's didn't even mess with margarita's for years and years). And finally you up the price by a few bucks so that you can pay the rent to feed the nouveau riche who actually have money to pay the extra cost. Kind of like taking drugs to make music to take drugs to (thank you Spacemen 3 for that concept).

Now we get to the key component: Does Herrera's ditch what made them famous, and try to impress with only Mexico City interior or fusion dishes? Or do they just put lipstick on the same old Tex-Mex slop (wonderful slop I might add) that they've been serving forever. The answer is both. And that's exactly the answer it needs to be. One arm reaching forward, while the other is reaching back to their loyal audience. We stuck to the Tex-Mex basics to validate, and I'm glad to say everything is up to the Herrera's standard. The chips and salsa experience was slightly different. The chips themselves were extra thick, and very tasty - better than the original. The salsa was different too - not quite as blazing as the original, but hot enough, and very good. I do miss the jar (or jug) of salsa on the table and the plastic bowl to pour it into, but we're upscale now remember? And yes, perhaps the biggest concern we had: Do the meals still come with a free bowl of "bean and bacon" soup? Yes, indeedy! And they didn't even bother to call them Ranchero Beans or Charro Beans. Nope - just Bean Soup. Right on. And it's still the gold standard for such an item. Mrs. RJG had the chile Relleno with ground beef and a side of rice. The ranchero sauce was excellent as was the relleno and beef. I went old school and had a cheese enchilada and two beef tacos. I've always like the ground beef tacos at Herrera's. Their thick and mushy ground beef has a great flavor. And the chili sauce on top of the cheese enchilada is as good as ever. I didn't imbibe this time, as we had a lot of errands to run. But I do hope to try the frozen margarita next time. And maybe even a fancy chicken dish. We'll evolve together.

Herrera's is yet another great American success story. From a small pueblo hut on Maple Avenue over 40 years ago, to a fancy restaurant in a new shopping district across the freeway from SMU. Heady stuff.

Given the new concept, I'll keep this a separate entity from the Herrera's Cafe entry.

Website

Cafe Herrera on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Las Pinatas ~ Fort Worth, Texas

For the second week in a row, Mrs. RJG and I decided to head to the other side of US-377 and try a newly opened Mexican restaurant. And like last week's Elote, Las Pinatas (forgive the lack of the diacritic here - I'm just too lazy to copy one in) was certainly good, but nothing exceptional. We'll get into that here in a minute.

First let's talk about the history of Las Piñatas (OK, I found the right phonetic). This is the former Jalapeno's in Keller, which we wrote about a couple of years ago. Here's what I wrote in Urbanspoon: "The name change is a good idea, since I think it was causing confusion with the nearby taqueria of the same name (but different owners)." We liked Jalapeno's, though granted we only went a couple of times. Perhaps Las Piñatas is even better. Is it? No. About the same honestly.

The location sits in a very odd shopping strip center off of North Tarrant. It's built on top of a hill. To get to the restaurant from the parking lot, you can run up a couple of flights of stairs; take a long winding ramp; or practice your mountain climbing skills. In either case, it's a great way to build up a thirst for a frozen margarita or a beer. So after your pre-meal exercise, you open the door, and find a very weird looking restaurant. Honestly it looks like the break room of some 1970s office supply warehouse. There are a few tables scattered about. Beer signs and mirrors adorn the walls in haphazard fashion. There's what looks like a fast food counter area where the food actually does come out of the kitchen. There are the requisite piñatas hanging from the ceiling. And there are electrical wires hanging everywhere - AND you have a clear vision into their storage areas. It doesn't feel like a restaurant at all. I think they did a pretty good job with the bar area on the right side of the restaurant - but that's about it. Honestly it looks like a college guy's dormroom. All that's missing is the Playboy pinups. There's not an ounce of a feminine touch to the decor. So that's a big minus - definitely not a date place! The outside patio area is much more inviting, but who's going to sit out there in the summer?

OK - so now that we're sweaty and sitting in the breakroom, let's get a frozen margarita shall we? Oh it's not frozen yet. GRRRRR... as you all know, that is one of my big pet peeves. Especially in the summer! C'mon, turn the doggone thing on early would ya (big minus). As an aside, I just read my original review of Jalapeno's, and they had the exact same problem with this. Guess they don't read the RJG, huh? Anyway, the waitress did a remarkable save though and poured what was in the machine and concocted her own blender version. I usually despise blender margaritas, but this was pretty close to the machine - so that's a plus. The chips were crisp and tasty, and the standard red hot sauce had a very nice smoky chipotle taste (plus). I asked for a hotter salsa, and out came this really mean looking blended green sauce. It's fantastic! Must be a blend of jalapeno's and serrano's. And it was very hot. So a huge plus there.

Things are looking up here! Mrs. RJG went for the street tacos (al carbon, and al pastor). They were delicious with excellent homemade corn tortillas and wonderfully seasoned meat. And tender (PLUS). I went for puffed tacos, which is not something you see everywhere. I think Ojeda's is the origin of this great dish, and of course Esparza's copied it. In fact we just had a team dinner at Ojeda's (on Maple) this past week and their puffed tacos were incredible. At Jalapeno's they are... they are.... terrible (MINUS). The meat is way too juicy/greasy, so the shell just breaks down into a complete mess, leaving a mushy taco salad on the plate. I went with one spicy chicken and one ground beef. The spicy chicken is 1) not spicy and 2) not chicken. Well it might be, but it was probably rooster or some other bird that tastes like a bird. It was gross tasting. The ground beef had a nice flavor but was way too mushy. The rice and refried beans, on the other hand, were excellent. Especially the beans (PLUS).

The cost of the entrees are way too expensive for what you get (MINUS), but the drink prices are excellent (my margarita was $4 and Mrs. RJG's beer was $3) (PLUS).

So a real yin/yang experience we had at Las Piñatas. I gave it a "likes it" on Urbanspoon, but boy that's just barely. Like pass/fail in college, and the pass grade is a 60. We probably won't be going back.

Website

Las Pinatas Restaurant & Cantina on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Elote Mexican Kitchen ~ Fort Worth, Texas

Elote Mexican Kitchen is the newest restaurant from the same owners who run the very popular Oliva Italian restaurant across the street. As soon as I heard they had "high end" tacos and "10 draft beers", we had to make a special trip.

Just to clear thing up right from the start - they do not have 10 draft beers, more like 7. And only one is a local craft brew (Rahr, which is the oldest microbrewery from the area, and their taps are easily quaffed elsewhere). That's fine, I'm always happy to get an adult slurpee instead, which is exactly what I did.

Elote's is a QSR, or in laymen's terms, you order at the counter. We each went with a taco combo, that allows for two tacos, rice and beans. I had the shredded chicken on a flour tortilla, and a seasoned ground beef taco in a crispy shell. Mrs. RJG settled on a shredded chicken as well as a vegetable taco, each in a corn tortilla. We each had the cilantro lime rice, and I ordered refried, while she went with the black beans. And we each ended up with refried beans. I will say this: Everything was good. Nothing was very good, much less great. I suppose the beans are a bit heavy for my tastes, but certainly not terrible. But they do commit one unpardonable sin as far as the RJG is concerned: They don't have their own salsas for the tacos!! Instead they have bottles of the red and green El Yucateco sauces. Hey, I love El Yucateco. But I can buy that at the grocery store. They do have a salsa you can get with the chips, and it's downright awful. A very chunky tomato sauce with little flavor. No thanks.

So... the margarita was good, a little sweet, and could use more tequila, but still good. The shredded chicken was the best thing we each ate, and was seasoned very nicely. So this was above average. The cilantro lime rice was pretty good, better than Habanero's that we spoke of recently, but it seems it would have been better served in a burrito (ala Chipotles). The beans were too thick. My ground beef taco was OK, but couldn't hold a candle to places that specialize in that like Taco Casa or Taco Mayo. The tortillas were well made, especially the corn according to Mrs. RJG. I do think the tacos are priced too high at $2.50 each. These are at best $2 tacos. The restaurant itself is very nice. Modern, with clean lines, cool colors, and plenty of flat screen TV's. Service was squeaky clean and nice.

So where does that leave us? We liked it. Will we go back? Probably not. What for? There are just too many places better than Elote in the same food category. In reading some of the reviews, I see some folks enjoy it because they have nothing else like it in the neighborhood. Fair enough. If I lived there, I probably would hang out there more too. But it's not worth the drive for us. And neither is Oliva to be frank. They're just too straight down the middle for us.

Website

Elote Mexican Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Banana Leaf ~ Dallas, Texas

It's been awhile since I added anything new to the RJG. Mainly that's because we haven't been trying new places of late. But we are still keeping up with the 2013 updates. Also during the last month and a half, I had a full week business trip to Raleigh-Durham as well as a long weekend to Denver.

Banana Leaf is a Thai restaurant Mr. Music first took me to over 9 years ago when I had an office nearby. As such, this is the longest running Thai restaurant that we have continued to patron in DFW. Of course, at best I only visit about twice a year, whereas some of our faves in Northeast Tarrant may see us 30 to 40 times in that same time span.

Banana Leaf has become our go-to spot to "have a meet" with the Godfather of our India Mafia. So The Garland Troublemaker, myself, The Godfather, and one of his Capo's sat down "ta 'scuss bizness." In the old days, we went to Italian restaurants to do this. Nowadays it's Thai and Indian cuisine. Ya gotta move with the times...

The Garland Troublemaker's fave dish is the Yellow Curry with two bowls a rice - and a couple of Singha beers to wash it down with. The Mafia guys, while not strict vegetarians, try to stay true to their customs and stick to the meat free offerings, which they obviously enjoy since this is their usual choice for our meetings.

Banana Leaf is one of the few places in DFW that will serve your menu item "Thai Style". You'll have to ask for it though. One of my test dishes is Spicy Basil Chicken. When I ask for it Thai style and Thai Hot, that's what I get... minced (ground chicken) mixed with Thai chilies, onions, basil and green beans. I ask for the latter to be left off, but otherwise it's a perfect dish. They'll definitely make it as hot as you like. Though it can depend on the chilies and the season.

It should be noted that all lunches come with a salad with peanut sauce dressing and a bowl of egg drop soup (or whatever the Thai equivalent is). They also have a nice full bar.

Website

Banana Leaf on Urbanspoon