Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Reviews: Branded and Chuy's

Not related to anything: I just had an orange carrot karma smoothie from Jamba Juice. Yummie! Jamba Juice is so expensive that it's a splurge for me. $5 for a smoothie...I mean, c'mon! But there are times, especially when I have to go to the doc for shots and stuff, especially when I didn't quite pack enough for lunch and when I don't want to reach for cookies or high calorie granloa bars, that a smoothie just hits the spot. Yum! And the ads promise I just had 3 full servings of fruits and veggies. Minus the cellulose, of course.

Anyways, back to the purpose of today's post: reviewing Branded and Chuy's.

Last weekend The Lovely Spouse and I spent a day at AggieCon. It was awesome and full of geekery. Because we spent a full day there we had to eat something. We didn't really want a fine dining meal at the Hilton and the coffee bar didn't have much "real food" to offer. So we looked for other options. There are a few places across the street from the Hilton but we had yet to try the restaurant next door: Branded. Very recently it had been called Sodolak's Beefmasters. Before then it was T-Bone Jones. The location is a bit weird: at the bottom of what might be the only steep hill in this part of Texas. But there's plenty of parking. The menu was identical to the Sodolak's menu from before and it turns out it's pretty much the same restaurant, but not the same as the famous one in Snook, which is owned by a different family member and is incorporated as a different business. This one differs from the one in Bryan in that it has a smaller menu, featuring all the best sellars. So you can still get the small, medium and large steaks in addition to fried pickles and corn nuggets.

I got a build your own burger. It comes with tomatoe, lettuce, pickles, onion and mayo or mustard, plus two more toppings from about 10 other choices. I got mine with just the veggies and added mushrooms and cheese. I didn't specify how to cook the burger (normally I'd request medium or medium rare). The result was surprisingly tasty. Seasoned well with salt and pepper. Cooked well to about medium. And just as juicy as you please and not too greasy. All for around $6.50. I'd say it was just as good as Fudruckers on a good day. The Lovely Spouse got a chicken fried steak that he said was quite good. I still don't quite understand the appeal of chicken fried steak other than a way to make an inedible piece of meat somewhat edible. And I certainly don't like gravy on my food. But he enjoyed it and that's all that matters. :-)

The sides were what I call dressed-up pre-packaged foods. That means they took something that's pre-packaged in some way, such as canned or frozen, and dressed it up in the restaurant before serving. With "country cooking" it often works because it falls in with your expectations of the food. And that's how it was at Branded. The green beans and fried okra were dressed up just right and enjoyable in a comfort food kind of way.

Would I go back? Sure! Good burger. And I do like me some friend pickles.

Would I recommend it to a friend? Sure! Cheap, good location, good food. Not a lot of options for vegetarians, though.

For out of town guests who want "the Texas experience" I'd go to the Sodolak's in either Snook or Bryan. The one in Snook features world-famous chicken fried bacon. And the one in Bryan has the full multi-page menu...not to mention a lot of character. However the location in College Station is quiet and close.

Now on to Chuy's. Since moving to Texas *mumble* years ago I have learned to appreciated Tex-Mex and Mexican food as something far more nuanced then what you typically see in Mexican restaurants Up North. There's a lot more to Mexican than hard corn tacos, refried beans and flavorless orange rice. In fact I've found out that refried beans are supposed to have flavor! And tacos don't have to be filled with ground beef and standardized Mexican food flavoring!

I classify Mexican food into Tex-Mex, fine dining and everyday food. Tex-Mex is food that's typically only found along the border. Nachos fall into this category. A person who's never left Poblano probably doesn't know much about nachos. Mexican fine dining is as much of an event as American fine dining and you truly haven't lived until you've had a real mole that's been cooked by a master chef over the course of days. Mexican fine dining is how I learned that a chili relleno can be grilled to perfection and doesn't have to be breaded and fried beyond recognition. And then there's everyday food, which is what you find in most Mexican restaurants and food trucks. This includes enchiladas, tamales, tacos filled with barbacoa (food of the Gods), among other things, carne guisda, menudo, caldo and other Mexican comfort and quick foods. This is stuff I crave and typically have at least once a week. So when we went to Chuy's I was expecting everyday Mexican because the sign says "Mexican Food." [For what it's worth, fajitas cross all three categories depending on how they're made and how they're served.]

Chuy's just recently opening in College Station in the Post Oak Mall parking lot. We had been delaying trying them out because the average wait is around 3 hours. I'm not waiting that long for anything that's not fine dining when there are about a gazillion restaurants in town. So we went at kind of a weird hour in the middle of the week. And had to wait 5-10 minutes to get in. Seriously, they gave us a pager for 5-10 minutes. While we stood at the front door next to the hostess station. The first thing that caught our attention was the noise. IT'S LOUD IN THERE!!!! And you can see why as soon as you're seated: no fabric on the walls or anything. It's all ceramic or metalic something or other. The decor is what I call stereotypical Mexican dive bar/market. Hubcaps on the ceiling. Lots of bright colors. Chaotic decor schemes. All following an obvious kitch design pattern.

We shouted our orders to our server and got some guacamole as an appetizer. The server also brought chips and salsa. The chips were on the thin side, so that was a good start. The salsa was a salsa fresca, which The Lovely Spouse loves. I thought it was too heavy on the cilantro, but at least there was a good amount of jalapeno to even things out. The guac was actually pretty good: avocados mixed with salsa fresca. Served on a bed of lettuce? For $5.50? That's double what most Mexican restaurants charge. OK, it tasted good so I can justify it.

Then the entrees arrived. I got the fajita chicken tacos and The Lovely Spouse got the beef burrito. The burrito was the size of a Freebirds Monster. He only ate half. But he said it was good and he enjoyed the hatch chili sauce on top. The chicken tacos were good and the quality of the chicken was better than most places I get tacos. However it was just kind of alright.

In all I was unimpressed. I can get better Mexican food from the hole in the wall family-owned places around town for a lot less. And I don't have to wait 3 hours to get in.

Would I go back? Only if I don't have to wait to get in. And specifically for the guacamole. Everything else was just alright.

Would I recommend it to friends? Only if you don't have to wait. And you're prepared for it being more expensive than a typical Mexican restaurant. Not as shocking as the price tag on Abuelo's, but still more than a mom-and-pop restaurant.

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