When Chuy Arzola's announced last June that it would close after almost twenty years, fans flocked to the Dogtown Tex-Mex institution for one last margarita, one last burrito, one last order of the famous fajitas. When I drove past — at lunchtime — the line for a table spilled out onto the sidewalk.
So it was big news when Chuy Arzola's opened in May in the historic Coronado building.
But this ain't exactly your father's Chuy Arzola's. Eddie Arzola, founder of the original Chuy Arzola's, remains involved with the new version, but his 23-year-old son Coby Arzola is the driving force behind it, along with Ami Grimes and Dr. Gurpreet Padda.
The change is significant. In late 2007 Coby Arzola opened his first restaurant, Agave, which offers a more upscale approach to Mexican cuisine than what St. Louis is used to, and which I reviewed early last year. (See "Apotheosis of Guac," January 31, 2008; note that Agave is closed for renovations.) Grimes and Padda operate Café Ventana, a coffeehouse that turns out first-rate beignets, lobster bisque and other casual fare. What's more, Grimes and Padda have brought Café Ventana chef Chris Lee into Chuy Arzola's kitchen.
You don't have to follow all this inside baseball to know that the new Chuy Arzola's is different. Just visit the restaurant's expansive space in the partially submerged basement of the Coronado, which was formerly occupied by a branch of the Joe Boccardi's Ristorante chain. The interior has a clean, even subdued design, relatively light on the Tex-Mex tchotchkes, while heavy on wood accents and natural light.
One element the new layout lacks is a true front door. You can enter from the basement of the Coronado. (Be sure to follow the signs, lest you end up in the laundry room.) There is a large Chuy Arzola's logo on the wall near this entrance, yet the door leads you to...I'm not really sure. A sort of way station between the bar and the kitchen? You will find the host's stand directly across the dining room from this entrance, just inside the entrance from the patio — or, rather, just inside an entrance from the patio because, you see, from the outside, the patio doors are more or less indistinguishable from one another, with the result that, on more than one occasion, I watched diners enter the restaurant from one side of the patio, make a beeline for the aforementioned mysterious way station and then head back to the other patio entrance before being seated. It's enough to drive a restaurant critic to drink. I ordered Chuy Arzola's house margarita. Maybe sensing the wariness in my voice, my server informed me that this was on the sweet side. Would I like to try the top-shelf "Texas Tornado" margarita instead? Well, I'm due back at the office after lunch, so...yes. Yes, I would!
The "Texas Tornado" costs two bucks more than the house margarita. An upsell for sure. But give the server credit: He anticipated my tastes, and in general, he and the rest of the staff did a fine job. The pace of the restaurant is rapid, though: Don't expect to linger over those drinks while you wait for your entrées to arrive.
The "Texas Tornado" is made with Sauza Tres Generaciones Añejo tequila, Gran Gala orange liqueur and Chuy Arzola's "signature Texas Gold mix." I swear to God the first few sips tasted like pear juice. After that it tasted a bit strong on the sour lime notes, overshadowing the flavor of the tequila. If not a tornado, though, it made for a quaffable accompaniment to a basket full of chips with medium-hot salsa and thick queso. (Guacamole is also available for dipping, though Chuy Arzola's is insipid — a spritz of lime juice would do wonders for it.)
Given the new surroundings and the new blood in the kitchen, one might expect Chuy's menu to depart some from the tired tropes of Tex-Mex cuisine. And a plate of enchiladas suizas did precisely that: two chicken enchiladas came to the table topped with salsa verde, Chihuahua cheese and sour cream spiked with cilantro. This dish sparkled with a much lighter, fresher flavor than ordinary ol' enchiladas topped with ranchero sauce. The salsa verde and the cilantro make a big difference: Enchiladas de crema, also listed on the menu, feature a sour cream "sauce," and the result is bland.
Guajillo enchiladas, meanwhile, feature roasted pork and a guajillo-chile sauce. Regular readers of this column know that I love nothing more than an authentic taco from Cherokee Street, almost to the exclusion of the Americanized variety. Yet the pork inside an order of three tacos in flour tortillas was tasty enough to transcend the deadening effects of shredded cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato. (In general, the roasted pork at Chuy Arzola's is excellent.)
The rest of the menu breaks no new ground: There are enchiladas, fajitas, tacos, burritos and combo platters, and nearly everything comes with sides of rice and refried beans. "Secret Recipe Fajitas," as the menu describes them, are not whisked to your table atop a sizzling skillet. This keeps the restaurant's noise level down, but it also removes some of the dish's drama. I opted for the beef fajitas. The strips of skirt steak were nicely charred, and some of the usual accompaniments were present and accounted for: flour tortillas, shredded cheddar, guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo. If you want bell peppers and onions, you have to pay $1.29 extra. The meat had all the flavor you'd expect from seared steak, but I didn't detect a secret-worthy seasoning. The fajitas could overcome the lack of a distinctive seasoning; the rice and refried beans could not.
Perhaps the most representative dish at Chuy Arzola's is the "Austin," one of the combo platters. This is two thin "crispy chicken burritos" (read: flautas or taquitos) topped with queso and a scoop of guacamole, with pico de gallo on the side. On one hand this is damn satisfying at the most primal level: The burritos are crisp, the chicken is tender, the cheese and guac round out the flavor, and the pico de gallo adds a welcome jalapeño punch. On the other hand, these are the same predictable pleasure points too many restaurants of every stripe aim for, a cuisine best captured by those Taco Bell ads that trumpet "melty, cheesy" foods.
Of course, there's no arguing that melty and cheesy sells: You had to wait in line during the final week of the original Chuy Arzola's existence, and the lunch crowd at the new location was generally bigger than the draw at most of the places I've visited recently. It's tough to knock a restaurant owner for hitting the sweet spot.