NORMAN — Chuy's has arrived, and the quality of Tex-Mex from here to Guthrie will either have to rise or disappear.
The franchise that turned Tex-Mex from a dirty word into an acceptable offshoot of Mexican food opened Tuesday at 760 Interstate Drive where Santa Fe Cattle Co. used to reside.
Chuy's is a big, colorful concept that is just as attractive to families as it is to the Margarita and appetizer crowd.
Growing up in Austin, Texas, in the late 1970s, I watched Tex-Mex food dip its toe in the river Styx thanks to lack of creativity, which created flagging enthusiasm from diners. Buckets of beans and rice with either a cheesy, greasy glob of what passed for enchiladas or tacos had become the norm.
Then along came the quintessential Tex-Mex dish: fajitas. The first I ever ate was at the old Austin Aqua Festival, and it was no more than three slices of grilled skirt steak wrapped in a homemade tortilla with a thimbleful of hot sauce — calling it salsa was still half a decade or so away.
Pretty soon, fajitas couldn't be tolerated if they weren't served on a sizzling platter with onions and peppers and a plate topped with a scoop each of sour cream and guacamole plus shredded cheese and pico de gallo. The dish was so popular mere Tex-Mex restaurants couldn't meet demand, and it began popping up on menus all across Texas, then throughout Oklahoma and the Southwest.
In 1982, Austinites Mike Young and John Zapp opened a funky little spot half a block from Barton Springs and Zilker Park in Austin, calling it Chuy's Fine-Tex. The partners embraced the term Tex-Mex at a time when it was considered derogatory, and the result was a resounding success.
Cheese enchiladas with chili gravy, crispy tacos, and chiles rellenos were dishes to be celebrated and elevated rather than dismissed. Instead of black wrought-iron grate work, red Naugahyde booths, sombrero-wearing guitarists and oversize votive candles, Chuy's was adorned with painted fish mobiles, used hubcaps and pedal cars, and Elvis paraphernalia. The place looked more like a roadside antique shop than a restaurant. And the music was modern; the only thing cooler than the vibe was the Texas Martinis, which have played catalyst to more than one lost summer afternoon.
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