Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Episode 1005, The One Where We Ate All The Chuy's.

From time to time, I'm given the opportunity to try new menu items at a restaurant. Today, Leif and Hunter and I went to sample the special Green Chile Festival menu at Chuy's, where we tried almost all of the things, and learned about Hatch green chiles and Chuy's Restaurant in the process.

Now, Chuy's as a chain has been around a little while.  These two guys, Mike Young and John Zapp, opened up a Tex-Mex eatery in a former barbecue joint in Austin, Texas back in April 1982.  Their goal was to serve fresh food - which is pretty awesome and a complete simplification of what they do.

In 1989, the two brought Hatch green chiles in to their restaurants from farms growing them... see, some peppers propagate and can be harvested several times a year, but Hatch green chiles are harvested only once a year. As manager Brent Schleuse was telling me while showing off the West Little Rock location of Chuy's, many of those farms were switching over to Anaheim chiles, which were easier and quicker to grow but which have an entirely different taste profile from Hatch green chiles (Anaheims are sweeter).  The pair found a farmer who was growing the Hatch green chile for his own personal use - they convinced him to grow them for Chuy's.  Those peppers are harvested in August, and today Chuy's purchase nearly two million pounds from these fields in the town of Hatch, New Mexico (which, I would assume, is where they got their name).  

The Chuy's folks invited a few of us in for lunch today to sample the special menu before it's promoted August 15th through September 4th, and since Grav had other commitments I brought videographer Leif Hassell and my daughter with me.  Brent gave me a tour of the place, showing off the really neat and eclectic interior of Chuy's. Strangely enough, I hadn't been inside the West Little Rock location except to pick up a to-go order before, so it was new to me.

We were seated in an area off the side of the main dining area where the entire ceiling was decked out in hubcaps.  No, seriously, all these hubcaps! Brent tells me when the original restaurant was being decorated, the guys went looking for a hubcap dealer, and when they found one they tried to buy all the hubcaps the hubcap guy had. But the hubcap guy said no, because if he sold all the hubcaps he wouldn't be the hubcap guy any more... er, it made more sense when I heard it, I promise. Anyway, all the Chuy's locations have a room with hubcaps on the ceiling, so... yeah. Now I need to go see the hubcap room inside the North Little Rock location.

We went into the entry, where above our heads these wooden fish were schooling about.  These pescado are each individually carved by a family in Mexico, a thousand pescado for each location of Chuy's. 

The bar area is where you'll find the Nacho Car. And here in a few days, Grav is going to give you a peek inside the Nacho Car. But I'm going to tell you anyway, because it's cool.  Every day 4-7 p.m. is Happy Hour, and if you're ordering beverages at that time, you can help yourself to the Nacho Car. The trunk of this vehicle is packed with chips, nacho cheese, beans, beef and such for everyone who imbibes to also create their own nacho creation. This may be one of the coolest freebies I have seen around these parts.

You'll note all those dog photos. If you happen to bring in a photo of your dog for the wall, you get a free appetizer. So there's that!

Brent also let me peek into the Art Room, where one artist has committed his dreams to canvas. There was a private group in there, though, so I didn't shoot it.

This big main area has handcrafted palm trees in it - trees commissioned by a guy who's been supplying Chuy's with them since the 1980s. Chuy's likes supporting these artists, and the art and trees and pescado and such all add to the ambiance.

Brent lead me back to the hubcap room, where Hunter had already started to imbibe in a pina colada. No worries - this version was alcohol-free and it's now her new favorite thing. Or at least it was, until she tried my also nonalcoholic strawberry daiquiri.  

Chuy's, as you probably expected, does booze in lovely combinations and offerings.  This traditional margarita caught my attention. I mean, I can understand the allure of a frozen and flavored margarita, but there's something just simple and pure about tequila, orange liqueur and lime juice.  I'd probably ask for a sugar rim, though, because that's how I roll.

We were also offered a Mexican Martini, a version of the Texas Martinis Chuy's does so well.  These martinis come shaken, not stirred with tequila and your choice of Cointreau, Grand Marnier or Patron Citronage. This Mexican Martini, which includes a green chile infused El Jimador silver tequila and Cointreau, is a special offering for the Green Chile Festival.

There was also this... heh, crazy drink.  It's a a blackberry prickly pear swirl House Grand Rita. You'll note the multiple straws. It's one potent beverage.

Chips and salsa had already been distributed, and Hunter went to town on the almost delicate, super thin yellow chips.  The salsa is prepared fresh each day from tomatoes, peppers, onions, spices and fresh cilantro, and it's piquant.  

The other thing you see there is the creamy jalapeno dip, and it's not on the menu.  You have to know to order it. So do, get it alongside your salsa. It's Ranch-based with jalapenos and spices but it's not all that spicy, and it goes marvelously well with the house chips.

It was time to formally sample all those Hatch green chile dishes, and out they began to come. Leif rather liked the Queso Fundido, which was jack cheese, chorizo and roasted green chiles roasted and then topped with pico de gallo and cilantro. Brent and I discussed the differences between Arkansas-favorite cheese dip and queso, and this dish was significantly different from the cheese emulsion we're used to here.  He says the way to eat this is by taking a flour tortilla (they're somewhat thick-rolled in-house here, a little coarse but just smashing) and pinching up the cheese concoction, then eating it with the tortilla. Leif tackled it with tortilla chips, which is also acceptable.

Next up - one of my favorite items, the Spinach Chicken Enchiladas. I love a good combination of cream and peppers, and this one was really satisfying.  It's chicken roasted on the bone and then pulled off (which gives a great texture and which is super moist), jack cheese and fresh spinach leaves rolled up in corn tortillas that are then topped in green chile cream sauce and fresh roasted green chiles and tomatoes.  This is lovely, with nice tones of heat and cool together.  It's served with green chile rice, which I find a little biting but otherwise delightful, and with refried beans. The beans and rice are all vegetarian, by the way.

This is the Burrito Loco at Chuy's. It's a flour tortilla stuffed with Hatch green chile and poblano peppers, jack cheese and charro beans. It's covered in roasted pork green chile poblano sauce, roasted green chiles, Cotija cheese and crisp marinated red onions and serve with green chili rice. Now, note the pork is not inside the burrito. That poblano sauce would make that tortilla wet in an instant, so this gives the possibility for good contrast to the plate. I brought one of these home for Grav and he devoured it - savoring the nice low heat throughout the dish. 

I rather liked the crisp marinated onions, too. They're essentially onion refrigerator pickles, but they're only allowed to marinate a few hours, and they're not allowed to stand all that long, so you're not going to get day-old mushy onions with these.  Nice texture!

I'm already a big fan of these green chile street tacos, which are steak carnitas (that's right, beef carnitas), Cotija cheese, tomatoes, roasted green chilies and cilantro in small hand rolled corn tortillas. They're served with green chile rice. They're small, which means they fit well in the hand. The beef has a nice heat imparted from those chiles, and with a little squeeze of lime they were delectable.

And then there was the Elvis Green Chile Fried Chicken, a tender chicken breast breaded with Lays potato chips, deep fried and smothered in green chili sauce and cheddar cheese. It's served with green chile rice and refried beans. So yes, potato chip-encrusted chicken. And this works.  

But Brent let us in on a secret, and it's another thing you'll want to order that's not on the menu. Instead of getting the Elvis Green Chile Fried Chicken the way it comes, ask for it "server-style." It'll come out with Boom-Boom sauce - a creamy herb-and-vegetable puree - and a sunny-side up fried egg on top. There's something about that milder cream sauce and egg yolk together with the fried potato chips that just... well, to compare the two dishes, the original has a sorta State Fair of Texas flavor to it (I wouldn't know anything about that) and the augmented version tastes like the sort of thing you'd like to down after a night of drinking.  You really could spend a whole evening at Chuy's and wrap it up with this.

Of course, that's not what we wrapped up the sampling with.  We skipped the Valley Combo, which is a Spinach Chicken Enchilada paired with a Cheese Chile Relleno topped with Hatch green chile sauce drizzled in sour cream. I mean, we were already stuffed.  But we had to try this.

If you don't recognize what this is, well, this marvelous concoction is a Tres Leches cake. It's a cake made with three milks.  More succinctly, the cake is baked, then pricked all over with a toothpick.  Three different milks - milk, cream and sweetened condensed milk - are poured over the top and allowed to soak in, and it's served on a bed of Crème fraîche.  And dadgum it's good. The only way I could think to improve it is to have fresh Arkansas blackberries with it, but we're out of season now, so maybe I'll remember to remind the Chuy's folks about that suggestion in May of next year.

It was a rather all-encompassing lunch, and Hunter was on her second or third pina colada, I have no idea, so we had to depart.  But I'm liking this, and I will definitely be back.

There are three Chuy's in Arkansas - in Little Rock, North Little Rock and Rogers.  For more information, menus and specials, check out the website.

Chuy's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading about your tour. I look forward to Chile days and that Elvis Green Chile Fried Chicken Server-Style.


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