People will go to great lengths to chow down or chill out at Chuy’s.
In 2001, Austin, Texas-based Chuy’s received national attention when two 19-year-olds were cited for underage drinking and using fake identification at the Tex-Mex cafe and cantina. The women? Jenna and Barbara Bush, the twin daughters of then-President George W. Bush, who brought not only fake IDs, but the Secret Service.
And now in May 2013, patrons have been willing to wait up to an hour and 45 minutes (the time quoted at a 6:30 p.m. Friday attempt) to dine at the newly opened Little Rock Chuy’s - the only Arkansas branch of the loud and lively chain, with other outlets in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia - in the Chenal Marketplace shopping center that also houses Kroger Marketplace and Marshalls.
Well, not this reviewer. We bailed that night. And we eschewed Chuy’s another evening when 45 minutes was quoted by phone. Instead, we popped in at nonpeak times - 8:30 p.m. on a Tuesday for dinner and 1:30 p.m. on a Monday and a Wednesday for lunch - and were immediately seated.
The restaurant is not just busy in atmosphere but in aesthetics, with clever clutter everywhere: an Elvis shrine in the entry, hubcaps on the ceiling in a side dining room, giant sculpted palm trees in the central dining room where a window shows homemade tortillas being made, wooden fish strung up in the bar and funky folk paintings with stories of leg-eating sharks and chupacabra (then again, our Espanol is rusty) in a back dining room. Outside is a thatched-roof patio.
Diners receive a complimentary basket of thin chips and a petite, quick-to-disappear bowl of fresh salsa that is almost frothy due to a high lime content. Personable staff members are happy to bring more salsa and refresh chips with a large scoop.
Chuy’s serves a basic chile con queso ($5.99), but we opted for the Queso Compuesto ($6.99), a cheese dip with ground sirloin, guacamole and pico de gallo. It didn’t look beautiful when all stirred together, but it tasted bueno.
A good-size portion of guacamole ($5.89) was fine, but forgettable. The smooth dip (we prefer chunky) would seem more suitable as a topping or spread than an appetizer.
Other starters include various nachos, quesadillas and an appetizer sampler. Not that they are essential, between the chips and salsa,prompt kitchen speed and hefty portions (which Chuy’s takes pride in, offering “Big as Yo’ Face Burritos). The same day-to-night menu of salads and soups, burritos, enchiladas, house specialty tacos, fajitas and combinations is always in effect with entrees in the $6.29 to $10.69 range and no advertised a la carte options or lunch specials. Expect to leave stuffed or with Styrofoam.
Especially if you partake of a combination like the No. 2 Elvis Presley Memorial Combo for $10.69. The filling meal came not just with three messy and saucy enchiladas - one beef Tex-Mex, one cheese ranchero and one chicken tomatillo - plus rice and beans on one plate, it included a ground sirloin taco and tostada chips dipped in chile con queso on a separate plate (which our waitress called the Priscilla plate). It was certainly sized for a king.Or for my dinner date, who polished that off and then ordered sweet, sugar-dusted sopapillas ($3.69) with honey for dessert,
Since we’re discussing dimensions, I’ll admit defeat in our face-off with a Big as Yo’ Face Burrito ($7.99-$9.89). The 12-inch tortilla bundle, served with Mexican rice (green chile rice is another option) was a beast, stuffed with refried beans and cheese and bits of tender beef. Burritos come with a choice of sauce, and the one I hastily chose - the meaty Tex-Mex chile con carne/red chile sauce - was a bit heavy. Next time I’d probably pick the vegetarian fire-roasted tomato ranchero for balance.
Our server described the Chuy’s Special enchiladas ($8.99) as “A big plate of ugly” that tasted great. “He was dead-on accurate,” said my friend about the greenish, slightly sweet tomatillo sauce covering an enormous blue-corn tortilla-wrapped concoction of moist, flavorful chicken and cheese. It was topped with sour cream and served with a side of pico de gallo and rice and beans.
She was less taken with the less flavorful Chuychanga ($9.29) - fried tortilla with chicken, cheese, cilantro, green chiles - on another visit.
I’m choosy about fish tacos, and Chuy’s Baja Tacos ($8.99; shrimp is another option), with a nice crunch from the batter as well as cabbage and some flair from cilantro and creamy jalapeno sauce, fit the bill. On the server’s recommendation, I chose the spicy green chile rice instead of the standard Mexican. It cleared up my mistaken idea that all rice is the same, and it cleared my sinuses.
The best dish we tried at Chuy’s was also the most embarrassing to say: Chicka-Chicka Boom-Boom enchiladas ($9.99). The two enchiladas of high-quality roasted chicken and cheese, served with choice of rice and choice of beans, came cloaked in the habit-forming Boom-Boom sauce - a blend of cheese, green chiles, tomatillos, green onions, cilantro and lime juice that begins with a kick and builds to combustible.
Anyone needing to put out a mouth fire might order one of Chuy’s signature margaritas made with fresh lime juice. A basic frozen Famous Rita ($5.95) was suitably citric and strong. Other margarita options involve top tequilas, beer (Chuy’s Brew is a 7-ounce Coronita submerged in a margarita) and “floaters” or liquor add-ins. Chuy’s serves other cocktails (Texas martinis, as well as sangria, mojitos, bloody Marys), a variety of domestic and imported beers and Barefoot wines by the glass. From 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays, Chuy’s happy hour features drink specials and a “pimped-out nacho car” with free queso, taco meat and chips and salsa.
Address: 16001 Chenal Parkway, Little Rock
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Sat urday
Credit cards: AE, D, MC,V
Alcoholic beverages: Full bar
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Carryout: Yes (with curb side to go); 6 percent packaging charge added to carryout orders
Weekend, Pages 33 on 05/23/2013
Print Headline: Chuy’s a bustling flavor fiesta