When it was announced, in January, that Austin-based Chuy’s would be opening a restaurant in Central Florida, fans of the Tex-Mexery were enthusiastic. Many of the commenters were ex-Texans (extans?) who bemoaned the lack of good, authentic Tex-Mex food in Central Florida.
As someone who moved to the area from the Southwest, I can understand the disappointment with some of the restaurants that foist what they call Tex-Mex — or worse, “authentic Mexican — food but which is really no more than some tortillas with refried beans and melted cheese. It’s the equivalent of a cook boiling up some pasta, dumping some tomato sauce on it and proclaiming, “That’s Italian!”
But in the 25 years since I moved here, restaurants have moved beyond Flori-Mex and learned the nuances of Tex-Mex. Amigo’s under the original owners is one example; Cocina 214 in Winter Park would be a more recent one.
So it’s not like authentic Tex-Mex can’t be found. And it may be easier than finding Chuy’s, which has taken up residence on a godforsaken stretch of U.S. Highway 192, an area that causes visitors to conclude that Orlando has nothing but chain restaurants. (Chuy’s next Orlando location is said to be on International Drive.)
And then here’s another chain.
Here are the positives from my visit to Chuy’s. Staff has been trained to be friendly and engaging, even to guests who are not in their stations. Most of them seem to be having a good time and want to ensure their guests do too. I like that visitors to the area will encounter what I consider to be Orlando-style hospitality.
The atmosphere is fun, too. Chuy’s is fond of saying of its approximately 40 restaurants, “If you’ve seen one Chuy’s you’ve seen one Chuy’s.” I can’t vouch for the uniqueness of each location (although a reader recently posted a picture of a Chuy’s in Texas that I would have sworn was the one I had just dined in here). The large restaurant is broken up into multiple rooms, each with its own distinct design characteristics. The ceiling sculpture of hubcaps is fun, and the eclectic artwork lends a playful mood. (There apparently is always some sort of Elvis connection, which stems from the first Chuy’s and the purchase of some inexpensive Elvis-on-velvet paintings for decorations.) In a glass booth, women roll out handmade tortillas, a nice touch. The place bustles, and servers are a constant blur as they rush out plates of food with the ubiquitous Tex-Mex admonition to be “careful, this plate is hot.”
And the food? Good, yes; transcendent, no.
While I waited for my order — the comida deluxe combination — I helped myself to some chips and salsa from the trunk of what appeared to be a vintage Cadillac. The presentation was a bit unkempt, and the salsa was rather soupy.
The main elements of the combo platter were good, including the cheese enchiladas and the ground sirloin taco, although I would have preferred a soft taco to the bite-and-disintegrate hard taco shell. The enchilada sauce was dark and earthy tasting. The chicken flautas, little flutes of rolled tortillas, deep-fried, were forgettable. And the large tostada chips “dipped in chile con queso” looked to be dipped in something that can only be described as movie theater cheez.
The rice and beans that rounded out the platter were fine, although the rice might have been a bit more seasoned. All in all, the food was good enough, but not something I would face Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway to have again. International Drive is iffy, too. But I’m glad that the people who were so excited to have Chuy’s come to Florida will be able to find their favorites again. But I think you could go to Cocina 214 and hold a hubcap over your head and be better off.
Chuy’s is at 7913 W. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway (192), Kissimmee. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. Here is a link to the Chuy’s website, although the menu there does not list prices. (My combination platter was a very reasonable $10.89.) The phone number is 407-787-3545.