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.
Before I reached the drinking age, I joined high school buddies Eric Layne and Matt Bickley on a race to Chuy's for a little cast-iron full of fajitas for $4.99 and then raced back just in time — usually — for Mr. Dunlap's shop class at least once a week.
The food and the fun were a hit, and copycats quickly followed. After years of local expansion, Chuy's began spreading throughout Texas in 2006 after Steve Hislop purchased the company. Hislop has opened Chuy's restaurants in Tennessee and Indiana before invading Oklahoma in February with a spot in Tulsa.
The new Norman store includes all the funk that made the original Chuy's such a hit: One dining room is decorated with original Hispanic-style paintings, another has the hubcap ceilings, and the main dining room contains plastic palm trees, an open view of the tortilla station and splashes of color rarely associated with Mexican food.
The Chihuahua Bar is a shrine to Mexico's favorite canine plus the salsa bar situated in the trunk of a classic car. One look at the covered patio, and you'll doubtlessly start planning one of those aforementioned lost afternoons.
I expect Chuy's will have a Whole Foods effect on local Mexican restaurants. Just as local grocers had to up their collective game when Whole Foods arrived, so, too, will local cafes specializing in Mexican or Tex-Mex fare. This is not to say Chuy's will serve the best Mexican food in town. But it will probably be the best Tex-Mex in town, and there are few enough folks who discern between the two that it will likely have a large ripple effect.
Chuy's officials told me additional sites in Oklahoma City are being sought, and we can expect to see the restaurant become entrenched around the market soon.
The menu hasn't changed much at Chuy's: Burritos, chimichangas, crispy tacos and sizzling fajitas are still at the center. Sauces come in tomatillo, creamy jalapeno, ranchero, Hatch Green Chile and classic chili con carne. The table salsa is an old-school mix of tomatoes and jalapenos with plenty of lime and salt. The queso isn't free, but it's worth the money.
Chuy's is open daily for lunch and dinner. Go online to chuys.com for more information.