1.5 stars (out of 4)
Coloradans like to goodheartedly tease Texans about wearing jeans on the ski hill, but if there’s one thing both populations are serious about, it’s south-of-the-border cuisine. Texas, of course, has a slightly different take on the fare: Tex-Mex, which blends traditional Tejano eats with American, specifically Southwestern, ingredients.
In Colorado, we now have two more places to fill up on classic Tex-Mex fare like enchiladas and fajitas. Chuy’s Tex-Mex, which was founded in Austin in 1982 and now has locations in more than 15 states, opened its first Centennial State outpost in Westminster last June. A second restaurant, in Belmar, started serving in April, and two more Chuy’s are planned for the Denver Tech Center and Colorado Springs. It’s a chain, but one that’s committed to using fresh ingredients: The green chiles come from Hatch, N.M. Tortillas are hand-rolled from scratch-made dough. All of the sauces, salsa and guacamole are made in-house.
Homemade food served in a funky, spirited venue — with local craft beer, to boot — is a sure way to get Denverites to quiet their friendly joking, but the food has to live up to the promise. And on that point, Chuy’s is lacking. While we enjoy Texas’ latest import for its quirky look and easy-sipping margaritas, we prefer our Mexican food richer and spicier — and our ski pants waterproof.
Vibe: No matter which Chuy’s location you visit, count on it to have eclectic style: hand-carved wooden fish and hubcaps decorating the ceilings; life-size palm trees arcing over tables; decorative tiles, in various colors and patterns, lining the floors and walls; and Elvis-inspired artwork hanging everywhere. Retro diner tables and booths feel a bit out of place amid the flamboyance, but the incongruity is, itself, fitting. With various dining areas as well as a bar, Chuy’s is lively and appeals to diners of all ages. Try to snag a table near the hand-made tortilla station — there’s one in each restaurant — where a small team churns out more than 3,000 rounds each day.
Hits: Here, as in Texas, the servings are enormous. Take the Chuy gooey ($9.89), an off-menu appetizer dip that layers refried beans, queso, guacamole, sour cream, ground sirloin, jalapeños and pico de gallo. It’s salty and bright and wonderfully excessive. It’s also the size of a dinner plate and, in combination with the bottomless chips, could serve as a meal for at least two people.
The Baja tacos ($11.49) arrive two to a plate. The battered shrimp (fried or grilled fish are also available) are crispy but light, and the crust is balanced with red cabbage and Chuy’s tangy, house-made creamy jalapeño sauce.
A customer favorite, the chicka-chicka boom-boom ($12.29) is a playful, Tex-Mex take on enchiladas. Juicy (but underseasoned) hand-pulled chicken and cheese are rolled in fresh tortillas and then smothered in boom-boom sauce, a nicely spiced, chunky green chile- and cilantro-based gravy.
Save room for the fluffy tres leches cake ($7.69) topped with strawberry slices. Indulgent and palm-sized, it’s the proper way to finish a meal at this over-the-top eatery.
Misses: The dishes might be colossal, but the flavors at Chuy’s are surprisingly subdued. Mexican — or Tex-Mex — eats should be bold and complex; items billed as spicy should sizzle on the tongue. But they don’t. The chicken tortilla soup ($5.89 for a small order) had a thinner, chicken noodle soup-like quality rather than the expected creamy, slightly fiery broth. The ground sirloin chile rellenos ($11.29) were so lightly fried that they pulled oil but no flavor from the batter, which slopped off the Anaheim peppers as soon as they were touched with a knife and fork, and the meat was begging for salt and heat.
The beef, cheese ranchero and chicken tomatillo enchiladas (the latter encased in a house-made blue corn tortilla, a lovely surprise), and crispy ground sirloin taco in the Elvis Presley memorial combo ($12.99) all disappointed the palate due to lack of seasoning. The sopapillas ($2.99 for a half-order) were another letdown, arriving to the table a sullen deep cream color instead of golden-brown.
Drinks: Texas- and Mexico-inspired food calls for warm-weather drinks. Margaritas avoid being pucker-inducingly sour thanks to fresh-squeezed lime juice; try the frozen strawberry-mango swirl ($6.79). The kitschy Texas martini ($10.95) — it arrives in a plastic shaker next to a diminutive martini glass filled with olives — is a boozy blend of tequila and orange liqueur. There are also four Colorado craft beers on tap ($6): Left Hand Brewing’s Polestar Pilsner, Avery Brewing’s White Rascal, Great Divide Brewing Co.’s Titan IPA, and Odell Brewing Co.’s 90 Shilling Ale.
Service: Chuy’s is a casual restaurant, and the service follows that MO. Servers are attentive — dare we say, jolly — and quick with the drinks (and drink refills). The food comes quick, though, so don’t expect to linger over that Chuy gooey dip for too long before your entrée arrives.
Bottom Line: Chuy’s is fun, laid-back, and well-priced, so go for happy hour or take the kids. But if what you’re really craving is the spicy, deep flavors of south-of-the-border cuisine, there are better Mexican and Tex-Mex options elsewhere in the metro area.
Price: Appetizers ($7 to $12); Soups and salads ($6 to $12); Entrées ($8 to $16); Desserts ($3 to $8)
Fun Fact: Order a drink during happy hour (weekdays from 4 to 7 p.m.) and earn yourself all-you-can-eat access to the nacho car, a fully-loaded faux trunk with chips, salsa, queso, taco meat and other build-your-own goodies.
499 S. Vance St., Lakewood
6595 W. 104th Ave., Westminster
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday
Reservations: Not accepted
Parking: Free lot
Star Rating Guide: Ratings range from zero to four stars. Zero is poor. One star, satisfactory. Two stars, good. Three stars, very good. Four stars, excellent.