It's tempting to compare El Real — the new "vintage" Tex-Mex project by Houston restaurateur supergroup Bryan Caswell, Bill Floyd, and Robb Walsh — to Houston legend Felix Mexican Restaurant.
After all, the stucco facade of Felix is only a stone's throw away on Westheimer, its archways probably visible from El Real's marquee in the former Tower Theater space. And remnants of the legendary Felix are strewn across El Real — from the restored cane chairs that populate the bar to the old mahogany Felix windows re-purposed as shadowboxes full of Tex-Mex memorabilia in the mezzanine dining room.
There's also a Laredo-style counter selling Chiclets, pralines and cup-and-ball games directly across from the glass-and-steel tortilla stand which sits adjoining the kitchen in the middle of all the action.
El Real is offering Tex-Mex plates that are a throwback to the genre's roots, with bright yellow cheese, chili gravy, enchiladas, puffy tacos and plenty of grease. Combination plates are named after Reef regulars, including semi-facetious Hispanic rapper Chingo Bling, Gov. Mark White and lawyer Rusty Hardin.
But even though this might be your grandpa's Tex-Mex (piping hot plates included) that doesn't mean it's not offering anything new. The space is huge, with sky-high ceilings, polished cement floors and a sherbet color palette that shows up in the striped upper walls. References to the former movie theater function abound as well, from the giant screen silently screening spaghetti westerns in black and white to the classic red theater curtains used to close off the second floor space for private functions.
Speaking of the second floor, the mezzanine dining room might offer the best seats in the house, poised over the bar with incredible views. But at sunset on a nice day, the patio along Westheimer should offer premium people watching, especially when Underbelly and Hay Merchant open up across the street.
El Real is set to open quietly either Wednesday or Thursday, and will stay open from lunch (11 a.m.) to 11 p.m. on weeknights and serve until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, opening at 10 on the weekends for brunch.