It’s late on a Wednesday at Chuy’s in Fairfax and the tatted-up food runner, perhaps hoping to flee 30 minutes early, has dropped all pretense at hospitality. She offloads my cheese enchiladas without the standard warning that accompanies a Tex-Mex combo: “Careful, hot plate!”
Perhaps she hoped I would sear the outline of refried beans onto my palm, like some food critic reenactment of the Nazi hand-burning scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but I don’t care. I’m so thrilled to dig into these hot, gooey corn-tortilla logs of Jack and cheddar cheese that nothing can alter my mood: not the derelict employee, not the lard-free beans, not even the diced red onions standing in for the more traditional raw white onions.
To Texans and former Texans of a certain vintage — read: old enough to remember when a Democrat governed the state — Chuy’s conjures up warm feelings that mystify newcomers who stand outside this sanitized kitsch factory and wonder, “What fresh corporate hell is this?” Launched in 1982 in Austin, Chuy’s took Tejano cooking, wrapped it in a thin layer of college-town irony and christened it with a cheeky Jesus reference. The decor of the original location borrowed from the junkyard and the thrift store alike, mixing black velvet paintings with used hubcaps, repurposed as ceiling adornments. A shrine to Elvis expanded steadily as customers added their own memorabilia to the altar.
Not everyone loved Chuy’s in Texas, particularly as the founders expanded the concept to other locations, as if whimsy could be replicated with money and ambition alone. A good friend, a former Austinite, likes to compare Chuy’s to another favorite of the University of Texas crowd: the Salt Lick, a high-volume operation that bills itself as an open-pit barbecue joint even though its meats are first smoked in machines. By this, I think he means Chuy’s is more smoke than meat.
To those who automatically drift to the independent over the corporate, Chuy’s has a large scarlet letter affixed to its chest: The chain went public in 2012, which of course means it now has to satisfy customers and investors. As part of its grand plan to win hearts and wallets, Chuy’s is currently focused on the Washington region, where the company has opened two restaurants, with plans for more.
As I sit under a school of colorful fish circling above the bar at the Springfield Town Center location, I have to admit I’m both charmed and disturbed by Chuy’s ability to manufacture charm out of thin, shopping mall air. The kitschy elements of the original Chuy’s have been recreated down to the velvet paintings, the hubcap ceiling and even the silverware sealed in wax paper and stamped with “sanitized for your protection.” In the bar, where you will inevitably have to wait for a table, customers have hung framed portraits of their dogs in exchange for a free appetizer. There are more tongues on display than at a Rolling Stones concert.
I feel like such a sucker, but in a town where the modus operandi is to intimidate with granite and marble, I’m delirious to be back in the presence of Lone Star eccentricity, no matter how manufactured. I’m also delirious to be wolfing down Chuy’s combo plates again, after a long, dry Tex-Mex spell. I feel like a wanderer in the desert who has tripped upon a beach house, complete with wet bar.
Memory can be a cruel if courteous running mate, providing you warmth in your dotage but allowing you to romanticize things that, in retrospect, don’t deserve it. Like Chuy’s frozen margaritas, which go down sweet even with a generously salted rim. By contrast, the “perfect” rocks margarita, with Patron Silver tequila and Patron Citronge liqueur, supplies a tart, refreshing edge.
Perhaps conveniently, I had forgotten how much New Mexican influence creeps into Chuy’s Tex-Mex concept, courtesy of the Land of Enchantment’s famous green chilies, which spice up at least two sauces. The state’s beloved chile relleno is given the star treatment with four filling options: My long, tapered Anaheim peppers came stuffed with chicken and cheese before taking a dip in the fryer and luxuriating in a sour cream-heavy tomatillo sauce. It wasn’t a flavor bomb; it was flavor thermonuclear war. Even the “Chuy’s Special” is New Mexican in origin: a stack of blue-corn tortillas and shredded chicken drowning in tomatillo sauce and cheese, a hot mess of deliciousness.
Tex-Mex doesn’t always lend itself to pretty, Instagrammable plates. It remains one of the few cuisines in which “gloppy” is not a pejorative word. Take the elements of my Elvis Presley Memorial Combo: Charred specks of tomato in the Ranchero sauce try to cross the border into the tomatillo sauce, which wants to bond with the chile con carne-based Tex-Mex sauce. This can be a beneficial commingling if, say, an enchilada arrives overstuffed with dry breast meat and needs extra saucing. Which reminds me: The chicken flautas can be fried to a semi-arid state, requiring a dollop of sour cream or an application of Chuy’s fiery salsa fresca. Or you might consider dunking those tubes in the special-request creamy jalapeno sauce with ranch seasonings. Think: redneck gravy.
To successfully navigate a Tex-Mex meal, you will need the willpower of a wrestler trying to make weight. In other words, don’t load up on the thin, salty tortilla chips hiding in the trunk of the “nacho car.” That way, you’ll still have an appetite for the Elvis Green Chile Fried Chicken (breaded with potato chips, as if the Milanese-style dish weren’t addictive enough), the Chuychanga (like a chimichanga, but good) or the signature tortilla soup (rich with bone marrow!).
6793 Spring Mall Dr., Springfield. 703-971-7072; 11219 Lee Hwy., Fairfax. 703-364-5933. www.chuys.com.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Nearest Metro station: Franconia-Springfield, with a 1.4-mile trip to the Springfield restaurant; Vienna, with a 6-mile trip to the Fairfax restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $7.69-$14.99.