If you go
› Where: Chuy’s, 2271 Gunbarrel Road.
› Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
› Phone: 423-710-3007.
› Website: www.Chuys.com.
› Alcohol: yes
Maybe it was the lime green snakeskin vinyl bench and the schools of wooden fish suspended from the ceiling of the lobby of Chuy's Tex-Mex restaurant on Gunbarrel Road that did it. Or it could have been the Elvis tributes dotting the room, including an actual shrine and paintings on the walls of celebrities dressed as Elvis from different periods of his life. Or maybe it was the display of Chuy's T-shirts, themed with cheeky pop-culture references such as "Finding Chuy" (with a fish), "Chattanooga Chuy" (with a vintage locomotive) or "PikaChuy: Gotta Eat 'em All" (with a fish popping out of a Poké Ball). Whatever it was, it took my 9-year-old about three minutes flat to give me his verdict of this newly opened restaurant: "This place is fun."
His instinct was spot-on, as my family of four proceeded to have a delicious meal with stellar service in a kitschy space that screamed "good times."
We had barely gotten settled in our booth when our server, whose name tag indicated we should call him "Jon Snow," stopped at our table with a basket of warm, crispy chips with bowls of salsa and the restaurant's signature Creamy Jalapeno sauce. The salsa was full of mashed chunks of tomato and onion and, while it packed a good amount of heat, the fresh tomato flavor is what really shone through. I was impressed at first bite.
The jalapeno sauce was surprisingly milder than the salsa. The creamy sauce tasted like a homemade ranch dressing pureed with cilantro and lime juice with chunks of green chilies and jalapeno. I had to fight my kids off for a couple of bites, which was shocking for something with the word "jalapeno" in the name.
When Jon stopped to refill our chips and see if we were ready to order, he gave us the scoop on the menu, emphasizing the restaurant's commitment to serving the freshest food with the highest-quality ingredients. The meats are grass-fed and non-GMO, and nothing but the french fries and ice cream is ever frozen. All of the salsas and sauces are prepared fresh daily, and diners are encouraged to swap them out to customize their meals.
The menu is as extensive, with appetizers ($7-$10), salads and soups ($5-$10), burritos ($9-$11), enchiladas ($9-$11), house specialties ($9-$10.50), tacos ($8.50-$10.50), fajitas ($13.50-$14.50) and combination plates ($7-$11.50).
To sample a wider variety of items, we started off with the Appetizer Plate, which included the basic Chile Con Queso, Nachos, two Deluxe Quesadillas, several Chicken Flautas and guacamole.
The queso was quite good, with its blend of melted cheese and Green Chile Sauce and Ranchero Sauce. It had a sweet heat but wasn't too spicy. It's much more interesting than the basic white cheese and jalapeno dip you find at more traditional Mexican restaurants.
The nachos were simple but fantastic. Chuy's uses its homemade corn tortillas, cut in half and fried to perfection, as the base for these beauties. This makes each nacho quite large but sturdy enough to stay crispy even when smeared with refried beans and gooey melted cheese, jalapenos, lettuce and tomato. There still was no sign of sogginess when I boxed up a couple of chips to take home at the end of the meal. Major bonus points for that one.
The quesadillas were delicious, with soft, chewy flour tortillas stuffed with white cheese and juicy chicken. The flautas impressed me less — the chicken in these was dry, but the red chipotle sauce spooned on top was tasty. The guacamole was more of a "meh" than anything else on the plate. It was fresh, with a nice avocado flavor, but there was no heat to it.
For our main courses, the grown-ups struggled to make a decision. House Specialties that caught our eyes were the Chile Rellenos, the Steak Burrito and the Elvis Green Chile Fried Chicken, a fried chicken breast encrusted with potato chips and smothered in Green Chile Sauce and cheese.
After hearing from Jon that the Steak Burrito is what singlehandedly made him understand why people have been known to drive 100 miles or more to dine at Chuy's, my husband decided to give it a try. It was the best decision of the night.
The 12-inch monstrosity was stuffed with tender, melt-in-your-mouth chunks of grilled steak and cheese and topped with Hatch Green Chile Sauce, an unexpected combination of fire-roasted Hatch green chilies, caramelized onions and beef stock. It was a little spicy, but the heat was tempered by the smoky and slightly sweet undertones from the roasted peppers. My husband opted for refried beans over charro beans and chose the green chile rice over traditional Mexican rice. The refried beans were flavorful with just the right consistency — not soupy but not dry — and the rice was adequate.
Regardless, this burrito alone is enough of a reason to make a beeline to Chuy's. The steak is the star of the show here, the perfect poster child for why going grass-fed is worth it. It's also a testimony to not smothering every Mexican dish in cheese sauce and letting the fillings do the talking. The meat at Chuy's has a lot to say.
For my entrée, I ordered a combination plate with a cheese Tex-Mex enchilada, a ground sirloin crispy taco and a chicken chalupa. The chalupa, a fried corn tortilla topped with refried beans, cheese, chicken and a generous pile of crisp lettuce and flavorful tomatoes, could have used some seasoning. In retrospect, I should have asked to try a different salsa on the side and spooned that on top. The taco was delicious, a simple blend of beef and seasonings tucked in a crispy corn tortilla with cheese, lettuce and tomato on top, another example of how doing the basics well pays off.
Cheese enchiladas don't often differ much from restaurant to restaurant, but Chuy's raises the bar with its dark, smoky red sauce that resembles a molé more than a basic enchilada sauce. It was so good that if I had been at home, I would have licked my plate clean.
The kids menu is a good value, offering substantial $4.99 meals with drinks included. Kids can choose from Mexican fare, as well as chicken tenders or a burger with fries for the less adventurous eaters. Mine opted for tacos (which came with three generous mini tacos with beans on the side) and the chicken (three large pieces of tender, perfectly breaded chicken, along with fries my son declared better than McDonald's.)
Jon didn't even bother asking if we wanted dessert before bringing our check, assuming we'd be stuffed to the gills. We surprised him and opted for more suffering in the form of one piece of Tres Leches cake with four spoons. The decadent creation was moist but not soggy and literally melted in my mouth. Sorry (for my stomach), but soooo not sorry.
The restaurant is split into a bar and two dining rooms. The larger room has a more authentic Mexican feel, with mosaic tiles and giant metal palm trees dotting the room. The main draw is the tortilla-making station, where you can watch a busy crew pressing handmade tortillas and cooking them on a rotating griddle.
The room we were seated in is all '50s diner, with vinyl booths and retro pendant lights. Every inch of the ceiling is studded with layers of hubcaps from classic cars, and paintings of vintage cars cover the walls, one done on black velvet.
The bar area, with exposed brick walls, is the only space in the whole building with anything revealing the building's former life as a Romano's Macaroni Grill. The walls around the bar are covered with an ever-expanding collection of canine portraits. A sign invites customers to bring in a framed photo of their dog for a free appetizer. There is also a patio.
Chuy's doesn't offer call-ahead seating or reservations, so plan accordingly. Our server was clearly very busy with a full section, but we never felt rushed. Jon was patient with our indecision, chatty but not overwhelming, gave helpful suggestions and answered all of our questions like a man who genuinely knew every item on the menu. He was kind and attentive to our squirrelly kids, and refilled my husband's drink each time before it was empty. He was easily one of the best servers I've ever encountered.
Family dinners out are a rare treat, so it's important to find a destination with a menu that appeals to a picky eater's palate as well as satisfies a parent who appreciates a quality meal. With its fun, funky vibe and food that is a solid step above ordinary, Chuy's is the perfect pick to please the masses.
Contact Sara Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6594.