Texan Food Goes Big, but Not Far, in New York
First, there was queso.
No, not just Spanish for cheese, arguably not cheese at all. Queso the dish, the institution, the bright yellow dip from Texas short for chile con queso, which is, at its most basic, a mix of Velveeta and Ro-Tel.
This particular queso was vividly yellow, with the slippery sheen that comes from processed cheese, the kind of sheen that’s ephemeral: As it cooled, a thin skin formed, turning matte. As it cooled further, it became thick and required more effort to scoop up with warm tortilla chips. None of these developing structural changes were strange to the seasoned queso lover. What was strange, however, was the crowd of New Yorkers choosing to wait many hours for bowls of melted cheese on a weeknight.
Two hours was the estimated wait time on a recent Wednesday at Javelina, a new Tex-Mex restaurant in Manhattan’s Gramercy area, and dozens of twentysomethings in rompers and high-slit maxi dresses chain-smoked outside to pass the time. Some waited inside, pressing their bodies into the corridor behind the bar, where they shouted their orders of two, three, or four frozen margaritas as loudly as they possibly could until someone eventually heard and dispensed some from the slushy machine. (The frozen margaritas are better than expected, though the strawberry rendition is painfully sweet.) Three hours after putting down my own name, and after eating considerably more queso at the bar than was necessary to report this story, I got a text message—my table was ready.
When Dallas native Matt Post moved to New York a decade ago, he missed Tex-Mex, the regional American cuisine that is deeply influenced by Mexico but distinctly its own. Sure, you could find freshly nixtamalized masa in Corona, Queens; soft tacos in Sunset Park, Brooklyn; pozole verde in the East Village, Manhattan; and there was plenty of Americanized Mexican food in town, but no one would make you, say, a puffy taco filled with cumin-spiked ground beef as they do in San Antonio. Post decided to open his own restaurant.
At Javelina, you can find the stacked enchiladas of West Texas, glued together with cheese, bowls of beefy red chili, and four kinds of queso—white, yellow, or with such various mix-ins as brisket, chorizo, or black beans—and wash these all down with a pint of cold, slightly hoppy Shiner Bock, a beer that is also from Texas. The chile relleno, a fried green poblano filled with a thread of cumin-y beef, is particularly good, the sweet, vegetal flavors melded and soft with a sprinkling of raisins, under a network of semi-melted yellow and white shredded cheese. The simple enchilada de Tejas is filled with cheese and comes under a red chili gravy made from anchos, nearly black, blandly sour and flat, but the diners around me are putting it away like it’s their last night on earth. (You can also order the enchiladas with seafood, chicken, or steak.)
This is comfort food, and though you might want it to feel more like home cooking—more fresh and alive and carefully put together—the effect when the room is at maximum capacity is closer to a college campus cafe. Heavy and deafeningly loud, with every surface wet or sticky, or both. The food, and the flavors, can blur.
If you’re not used to it, there may appear to be something a little sad about individually stacked nachos, wherein each chip is allotted its own personal toppings. But in a Homesick Texan post dating back to 2008, the writer Lisa Fain explains that she grew up with individually piled nachos, elegant and spare, smeared with just enough refried beans and cheese to carry some flavor, capped with a slice of pickled jalapeño. Less is more, Fain explained. (Nachos built in piles with many toppings are apparently referred to by some Texans as Yankee nachos or, less generously, lazy nachos.)
So elegant and spare is how you'll find them at El Original, another Texan restaurant in Manhattan, opened by Texans living in New York, where Fain has collaborated on the menu. Some people—people who grew up with individual nachos—will be delighted. Others, attached to the glorious messy pile, the scrum and surprise of family-style nachos, will not. (Matt Post, as it happens, who referred to the group nachos as ballpark-style, or bar-style, remembers individual nachos fondly and respectfully but serves them closer to family style.)
Service at El Original is generally warm and attentive, less intense than at Javelina, and everyone seems to be cheerfully hustling during the dinner rush. On the way out, you’ll notice a giant wheel in the lobby of the restaurant, covered with images of dominoes, and you can give it spin it as in Wheel of Fortune, if you like. “What is it?” I asked a waiter. “It’s just a game,” he said, as if delivering a line in a movie. “It means nothing.”
Puffy tacos are a specialty of Texas, the tortilla fried so it’s crisp at the bubbled edges, and you’ll find them stuffed at El Original with finely ground beef. The meat is tasty, well-seasoned, generously flavored with cumin, but the taco shells are extraordinarily tough, as if they were microwaved. On the dinner plates, the surface of the rice was dried out, perhaps forgotten under a lamp. The tomatoes were pale and sad, the chopped lettuce was wet. The dough of the sopaipillas, a fried pastry thinly dribbled with honey, was tough. Maybe it was good right out of the fryer, whenever that was, but it was hard to say.
This regional American cooking is a variety of comfort food, but that’s not to say it doesn’t require care and finesse to prepare well. Both restaurants could use a bit more of that if they want to teach unfamiliar New Yorkers about the joys and nuances of Tex-Mex. Until then, you’d do best to visit these restaurants when you’re properly hungry or a little bit drunk. Kill a couple of hours at the bar, and you could be both.
Javelina is at 119 E 18th Street (Gramercy); +1 (212) 539-0202 or javelinatexmex.com
What to Order: Stacked pork enchiladas ($20); Steak fajitas ($25; serves a few); Bob Armstrong queso ($12); Chile relleno ($17); Plain or prickly pear frozen margarita
Who’s Next to You: College students and recently graduated; girls’ night out groups; Tex-pats and friends of Tex-pats
El Original is at 735 10th Avenue (Hell’s Kitchen); +1 (917) 382-5512 or eloriginaltxmx.com
What to Order: Chili con queso ($7); Frito pie ($12); Tacos al carbon ($18); Pralines ($6); Margaritas (on the rocks; but be warned the bartender pours these freestyle, without measuring a thing, so they're strong if not always in proportion)
Who’s Next to You: Midtown’s after-work drinkers crowded at the bar; Ro-tel hunting office drones; large noisy groups of thirtysomething friends celebrating a birthday
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the price of the steak fajitas at Javelina, as well as the composition of the stacked enchiladas.