LITTLE ROCK The long wait is over. Browning’s Mexican Grill has reopened.
But this is not your father’s, nor indeed your grandfather’s, Browning’s.
The Heights landmark, which opened in 1946, closed last fall, and was quickly snapped up by a group of Dallas-based investors who announced, with some fanfare, that they’d have it back open by December.
Well, the resurrection took about seven months longer than anticipated. It required a lot more time, labor, effort and money than originally planned.
The new owners basically gutted the interior and rebuilt it from the floor to the roof. A few wall photos and an old menu on the walls of the entryway pay tribute to the original. But that warm, well-worn, old-wood atmosphere and golden glow that characterized the old Browning’s are gone, gone, gone.
The decor is bright, cheery, chainlike, rife with hard surfaces, wood and glass, an arched ceiling, a huge bar, a couple of bullfight poster-paintings, a bunch of flat-screen TVs that presage a possible sports-bar setting for Razorbacks games this fall, and a stage that presages musical entertainment somewhere down the line. (Right now, the sound system blares classic rock, which adds to the noise level.) The star-shape lighting fixtures look a lot like the vehicle in which baby Kal-el traveled from the planet Krypton to Earth to become Superman in the Superman movie.
“Cozy” has been replaced with “noisy.” Even with the main dining room only onethird full, we could barely hear ourselves think. It was at least as loud in the smaller front dining room.
Browning’s menu is almost all new, now, too. Although there are eight items — one appetizer, seven entrees — that come flagged with a cute little sombrero symbol that indicates “Browning’s Tribute Menu Item,” the recipes have changed.
No longer does practically everything come covered with what we’ve loved to describe as “brown glop,” the Texas version of chili con carne. That’s a huge plus.
But the new menu items are definitely hit and miss, and more misses than hits.
Intense public interest in Browning’s return may have forced the place to open before the staff was ready. The doors did indeed open Aug. 1, but for dinner only and with a limited menu.
It’s still a work in progress. As of early this week, the restaurant had not yet opened for lunch, nor is the restaurant taking reservations or even to-go orders. (There is a drive-through window on the east side, but it’s not yet functional.)
The kitchen was still operating with a limited dinner menu, still tweaking recipes and still trying to figure out how to get everything to the table in the right order.
Larger than anticipated early crowds have been responsible for some of the kinks, including comparatively lengthy, 30- to 45-minute waits for tables.
However, those waits don’t seem to be directly related to whether there are actually tables available; the corps of hostesses seems to be employing a peculiar method for seating folks that involves figuring out first where to put everybody who’s waiting before putting them anywhere but in the tiny waiting area up at the front or at the bar.
On our first visit, a birthday group of 20 was playing merry hell with the kitchen and the unprepared waiters, so it made sense not to seat more people until there was some assurance that they’d actually get waited on.
On our second visit, we had a 15-minute wait even though the restaurant was two-thirds empty.
We hope that changes, and soon. Few things are as frustrating to a diner as having to wait for a table when there are obviously tables available.
At sit-down, we got two kinds of thin salsa — mild and spicy, neither particularly worthwhile. Judging from the flavor differences between visits, it’s something the kitchen is still tinkering with. The spicy version on the first visit tasted a lot like the bottle of Mexican hot sauce on our table. No matter what our waiter told us, neither time was it distinctively chunkier than its mild cousin.
Also at sit-down, the hostess pushed us to examine the lengthy drink menu, which includes about a dozen specialty drinks, a limited selection of wines and a number of beers. Our margarita on the rocks ($5; the listing on our check, “MARGARITA RX,” made it look like it was just what the doctor ordered) was a bit on the tart side.
We took two shots at Browning’s Queso ($3.99), one of the “Browning’s Traditionals,” actually two small bowls of queso: what the waiter described as Browning’s “old” queso, yellow-brown and redolent with chili powder, and a “new” queso, brighter yellow, somewhat spicier and chunkier with mild green and red chilis — and was that perhaps a shred of spinach? It was definitely one of the brighter spots for both meals, and the second time we added chorizo (worth the 99 extra cents) to give it an additional kick.
We also liked the Shrimp Ceviche ($8.99), half a dozen or so rock shrimp that appeared to be lightly cooked rather than lime-juice-marinated — we noticed a faint taste of shrimp boil but no particular citrus flavor — served with a “pepper trio,” tomatoes and chipotle, artistically implanted in a goblet lined with radicchio and a couple of slices of fried plantain.
We were generally less impressed with the entrees. The steak in our Browning’s Fajitas ($12.99, $19.99 serves two; chicken, shrimp, carnitas and portobello are other listed choices) was way too peppery. It came partly sliced atop, not spread among, sizzling onions and green and red bell peppers on the skillet. On the side, we got a fairly bland pico de gallo, surprisingly tart sour cream and some overly salty guacamole, with a waxpaper bag of corn tortillas (we were not offered the option of flour tortillas).
Tacos al Carbon ($10.99, chicken or steak) do come on soft flour tortillas, so we know they’re available. The chicken and steak (we had ours mixed) were nicely grilled but not very exciting otherwise.
Salmon Veracruz ($12.99) was a nice-size, very nice piece of grilled fish, but we found no evidence of its being marinated, as the menu claims, in Serrano chili oil. The topping of avocado and “Veracruz salsa,” which sort of resembled the pico de gallo but didn’t match its level of spiciness, improved the plate presentation, but added virtually nothing to the flavor.
Rather than weigh down the plate with refried beans you might or might not eat and bland Mexican rice you probably won’t, diners have the option of picking two of the sides listed under the “a la carte” section of the menu. All of the ones we picked needed help. The guacamole ($3.99 a la carte), as we mentioned, was too salty. The “lime” in the lime rice ($1.99 a la carte) must refer to the color, not the flavor, which was pretty much so subtle as to be nearly non-existent. The goat-cheese-flecked Mexican black beans ($1.99 a la carte) were utterly unremarkable until, on a whim, we gave them a shot of lemon juice (from the lemon slices we requested to perk up the salmon); it was exactly the shot they needed. (Hint to kitchen: Add some citrus before you serve ’em, or serve ’em with lemon wedges.)
The one entree we actually enjoyed was — big surprise/drum roll — the Plato de Saltillo ($12.99), the deepest-dyed traditional in the list of “Browning’s Traditionals.” Despite a pledge by a former owner that whatever he might change about Browning’s, he’d never, ever change the Saltillo Plate, the new owners have changed it, and for the better.
The meat taco, well spiced ground beef topped with shredded lettuce and cheese in a very crisp cornmeal shell, was the first good surprise. The soft cheese taco, topped with a white-yellow queso, was the second. The enchilada came lightly covered with the closest thing to chili we saw at Browning’s, and that was more along the lines of a perky ranchero salsa.
Even the sides were above average. Browning’s tomato-ey Mexican rice, though not great, had enough flavor for us to actually eat a couple of forkfuls. The melted-cheese-topped refried beans, though tepid and dry, are whole beans, not paste, and actually fairly tasty.
The new Browning’s now has a large, very young wait staff, a distinct contrast from the old one (during a review visit in the late ’90s, the newest waitress had been on the floor for more than eight years). Everyone, from the chirpy hostesses to the members of management, are still finding their way around the floor and puzzling out the computerized point-of-sale system, but they were also unflaggingly cheerful, welcoming and helpful.
We needed a bit of that help on our second visit. We’re not sure where the communication broke down, but we had a whole series of niggling service shortcomings.
Somehow the kitchen interpreted our order to have the queso con chorizo come out with the entrees instead of as an appetizer; our charming and helpful waiter rushed us our double-bowls, which we had barely touched before the entrees arrived. We had to also re-request one of the sides with our tacos al carbon, a tasteless and unappealing tortilla soup.
The chicken strips and fries ($3.99) we ordered off the children’s menu for a Munchkin member of our party didn’t come out until after everybody else had been served. And when they got to our table, the Munchkin didn’t like them. She didn’t specify (“nasty,” she said), but an adult sampling a strip thought it could have been the spiciness of the batter.
We had to ask for the glass of tart fruit punch that was supposed to come with the chicken strips. We never did get the menu-promised dessert Fudgesicle, although the failure of the adults to otherwise order dessert might have been the cause of that.
Address: 5805 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock Hours: 5-10 p.m. daily; possibly opening for lunch late this week Cuisine: Tex-Mex Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D Alcoholic beverages: Full bar Reservations: No Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Not yet (501) 663-9956 browningsmexicangrill.com
Weekend, Pages 31 on 08/11/2011
Print Headline: Browning’s serves big changes