What exactly defines the Southwestern genre? How does it differentiate itself from Tex-Mex and Southern fare?
These are good questions, but you won't find any answers at TQLA (pronounced "tequila"). Instead executive chef Tommy Birdwell is content to mix and match at will between the genres, creating some spectacular dishes that can't be found anywhere else in Houston.
Dinner starts with chips and a duo of salsas — one red with a bite of spice and an addictive smoke flavor and one verde with an overpowering pineapple sweetness.
For appetizers, I opened with the wild mushroom tamale, a traditionally presented tamale stuffed with wild mushrooms and goat cheese filling and topped with a light mushroom cream sauce and a fresh corn and sun dried tomato salsa. Unlike most tamales, the corn shell was light and soft, not starchy and overpowering, and the flavors combined for a truly excellent bite. The star might be the mushroom cream sauce, though.
When TQLA general manager Scott Lindsey caught me dipping the tortilla chips in it, he told me TQLA is adding an appetizer of dipping sauces, including the mushroom cream, a queso and a more traditional guacamole. I'll be looking for it.
Next up were the TQLA fried oysters, with the shellfish covered and fried in a surprisingly bready blue corn coating and served in another standout sauce, this time a chorizo cream. The blue corn was probably chosen to add some southwest texture to a Southern dish, but the blue-gray nuggets do not make for the most visually appealing dish. Hardcore oyster fans probably won't be impressed, as the dressing pretty well covers the distinct oyster flavor, but it's still a tasty bite.
Moving into entree territory, the standout dish was the crawfish and spinach enchiladas. Corn tortillas were filled with sauteed crawfish, spinach, basil and queso fresco and smothered in the same wild mushroom sauce that entranced me on the tamale dish. They were creamy, with a rich, buttery flavor and just a hint of brightness from the cheese. In a word: Love.
If TQLA has a weak spot, it might be some of the other entrees. I had the pumpkin seed-crusted salmon, and while I loved the green chili mashed potatoes served with it and the fish was cooked well, the pumpkin seed texture was too crispy for my taste. Though I didn't try it, the bone-in chili-seared ribeye smelled amazing and looked big enough to comfortably feed two.
It would be silly to talk about the food at TQLA and not mention the namesake spirit. TQLA has 172 kinds, to be exact, and is constructing a guide with flavor profiles like you might find at a restaurant with a great wine cellar. In fact Lindsey is one of three certified tequiliers in the United States, and he is taking it seriously, mixing up cocktails and margaritas with only 100-percent agave tequila.
The creme de la creme of which is bottle of limited-edition Jose Cuervo 250 Aniversario Tequila, retailing at $2,250. TQLA has the only bottle in Texas.
Situated in the center of the Washington strip in the parking-friendly building that also houses The Counter and Les Givral's Kahve, TQLA should be a hit with foodies who want something kind of different and a good cocktail — try the tequila old fashioned, it's killer — as well as drinkers who are looking to up their game in the spacious bar.
Can this mish-mash work? I hope so. I don't know exactly where the Tex-Mex influences end and the Southwestern fare begins, but I know what's being served is pretty great.