My dining companions and I were headed in on Westheimer at Taft and name “Don Julio’s” tempted us into stopping. That’s the name of the brand of Tequila that many of my friends in Mexico pull out when they want to impress their guests with attention to quality. I wondered what that choice of a name meant in this Tex-Mex/Mexican restaurant with four locations. In the past few months there has been a lot of labeling of restaurants as “Mexican” and “Tex-Mex” and “authentic” (or not). That started, I guess, with the high visibility opening of a “real” Tex-Mex restaurant on Westheimer this year. I’ve been a guilty of it, too. I’ll probably continue to do so when a restaurant takes itself seriously with one label or another. Frankly, I didn’t see Don Julio’s as a “poseur” in any particular rigid cuisine. It seems to have influences of Mexican, Tex-Mex, Sam Rivera… and his customers.
A very eclectic wait staff pays homage to a very eclectic Montrose neighborhood and service was VERY attentive and solicitous… not merely responsive. The staff seemed to have actual specific favorites not fed to them as sales specials for the day in the morning meeting.
Guacamole is simple and straightforward… not crammed with fillers. Avocado is the main ingredient and it is allowed to stand and deliver with few additives.
Four salsas are offered, including the obligatory standard red (salsa roja) which is tasty with a house-made flavor… also one that the waitperson referred to as “the ghost pepper sauce”. Ghost pepper (nickname for Bhut Jolokia)? For those who come in and say that they want a really (REALLY) hot sauce to impress their dining companions, owner Sam Rivera actually created a Ghost Pepper (the hottest pepper in the world) Salsa Roja to separate the men from the boys. He says that the supply of fresh peppers was off and on and rather than use dried peppers, he switched to Habaneros. However, his Salsa Verde, with fresh tomatillos and cilantro and the molcajete hand-muddled Taqueria Red Sauce were both my favorites on this visit.
At the suggestion of our server, we ordered the ceviche, made with shrimp, snapper, avocado, onions and cilantro. It is a favorite of our server, Don Julio’s customers and my companions. Like many of the offerings here, the ceviche is a fusion of a Mexican dish and Sam’s “take” on it. The subtle ingredient that gives the ceviche its unique character is the addition of a small amount of tartar sauce to smooth out the acidity of the lime juice. This is a tasty dish and is very popular. Me? I like the acidity of the lime juice. Just sayin’…
Texas Mud Before and After Stirring
I was intrigued by a starter called Texas Mud, so I ordered it as an appetizer. It is a “four layer” dip and is best eaten all “mixed up”. The name “mud” comes from the appearance after it is mixed up. I photographed it “before and after” as when it’s ready for chips, it looks bad… tastes great! This would be a nice alternative for those who like a cheesy starter like Queso Flameado (also offered), but want to stay away from the delicious grease usually generated by chorizo in flameado. A trademark of Rivera’s dishes here is the liberal use of gooey white cheese, including the Texas Mud.
As with all Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants, beans are a big deal and they pretty much come with all entrees. Typical Frijoles Refritos, as well as a black bean version are offered… however, my order of Charro Beans was as good as it looked… well-flavored with pork, onions, chiles, tomatoes and sporting a rich broth (Mexican “pot liquor”) that welcomed the addition of a few chopped raw onions.
Don Julio’s Carne Guisada is beef chunks cook till tender in a rich gravy made from onions, tomatoes, cumin, chiles… and an important addition, in my opinion, to this spicy south Texas favorite of mine, are potatoes to soften the heat and offer another medium to deliver gravy to you. I would probably order this dish on a subsequent visit.
With most Tex-Mex restaurants in Houston offering fajitas, we had to see what this version offered. If I were asked by a visitor to suggest places to try our Houston-launched national favorite “Tex-Mex” dish, I would have to suggest that these be tried. The difference? Chipotle marinade is the kicker. The smoky flavor of these chipotles is also complemented by the rich color of the chipotle chiles. The fajitas are really worth trying here.
While we had no room for it and knew it would ride home with one of us, we ordered the Snapper Perfeccion. No more nor less than a Mexican blackened red snapper filet, this snapper is perfectly cooked and served over Spanish rice and fresh jalapenos, along with pico de gallo and avocado slices. While there is a lot of seafood offered here, this is a lighter dish and I loved it, but took most home.
Enchilada’s Smothered With Don Julio’s
Signature White Cheese
Another dish that car-pooled with us is one of the cheesiest Enchilada plates I’ve had. This plate included sour cream, chicken verde and cheese enchiladas and the cheese hung from the fork like from a hot deep-dish pizza..
Happy Hours Are Built Around Don Julio’s
Premium Signature Drinks
Deserts are festive and I tried Rivera’s take on Flan, which was like a flan/cheesecake fusion in my opinion. It wasn’t the traditional light custard-style flan and was a pleasant change from a dish that virtually all Mexican restaurants offer.
I think that it needs to be said that Sam Rivera is one who, now that he has four locations (and growing), has decided that the key to his future success is an ear to the ground. He says he listens to customers and considers his menu to be in evolution based upon feedback and his own adjustments and ideas. He says he is not at all interested in being judged as “authentic” in anyone’s opinion of what should the menu and recipes of a Tex-Mex or Mexican restaurant. He says wants customers to stay around… eat… and drink the many premium specialty drinks he offers. He stressed to me, when he visited our table, that the most important thing to him is that he wants customers to leave the restaurant full… happy and “feeling like they got their money’s worth”.
Also, for what it’s worth, when I got home from this visit to Don Julio’s, my wife actually told me that this was the best doggie bag I had ever brought home to her.
Don Julio’s Mexican Restaurant
322 Westheimer Road
Houston, TX 77006