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A Hot New Lunch Spot

New downtown Houston restaurant shows respect for historic building, promises a quick lunch

4 El Big Bad interior mural
The three little pigs have a place on the mural.  Photo by Eric Sandler
10 El Big Bad interior murals and kitchen
Artist Kevin Hernandez created a 50-foot long mural for El Big Bad.  Photo by Eric Sandler
Steve Sharma and Lea McKinney of El Big Bad and El Gran Malo
Co-owner Steve Sharma and co-founder Lea McKinney stand on the balcony of newly opened gastro-cantina El Big Bad. Photo by: Eric Sandler
7 El Big Bad interior stuffed wolf or coyote
No restaurants are allowed to open downtown without taxidermy.  Photo by Eric Sandler
6 El Big Bad interior pickled goods
El Big Bad's signature infused tequilas now reside in a two-story high case.  Photo by Eric Sandler
1 El Big Bad interior mural
As does this lucador from El Gran Malo Photo by Eric Sandler
4 El Big Bad interior mural
10 El Big Bad interior murals and kitchen
Steve Sharma and Lea McKinney of El Big Bad and El Gran Malo
7 El Big Bad interior stuffed wolf or coyote
6 El Big Bad interior pickled goods
1 El Big Bad interior mural

After a six month build out, El Big Bad has opened its doors in the former Cabo/Pepper Jack's space on Market Square. The bigger, badder sibling to gastro-cantina El Gran Malo occupies 10,000 square-feet of prime downtown real estate.

Fans of the original will find the blueprint familiar. The signature cocktails made with fresh juices and infused tequilas are well accounted for.

"This is an iconic building," co-owner Steve Sharma tells CultureMap. "It’s one of the oldest buildings in Houston. It was built in 1870." Sharma and EBB co-founder Lea McKinney say they went to great lengths to preserve both the building's history and "bones," even preserving fire damage.

 "It does take a long time to have this stuff ordered or custom made . . . but it's super-fucking awesome."   

"We wanted to leave that smoke damage, so we lacquered over it," Sharma says. "We didn’t want someone to be in a white something, a dress or business suit or whatever, lean up against a wall and all of a sudden have soot on them. It’s part of the character of the space."

McKinney worked with interior designer Erin Hicks on a fuller expression of El Gran Malo's wild, fairy tale-inspired decor. The collaboration has produced a dramatic, inviting space that's on the short list of the best-looking restaurants to open in Houston this year. A 50-foot long mural by local artist Kevin Hernandez that includes luchadores, wolves, pigs, mythical figures and more sits above the downstairs bar.

Iron-work from local artist Mark Bradford supports standing, bar height tables. The two-story cabinet that houses Big Bad's infused tequilas also contains a variety of artifacts that can only be viewed by riding up the glass elevator to the second floor. 

McKinney explains that working with Hicks, Hernandez and Bradford meant slowing down the original plan for a quick re-opening, but it has had real benefits. "There’s a lot of weird stuff we learned from Erin to bring us to this next level design wise, too. It does take a long time to have this stuff ordered or custom made . . . but it's super-fucking awesome." 

As with all new downtown openings, there's one taxidermy item, which, of course, is a wolf. It faces the door of the private dining room that's decorated with straw, sticks and stones, which represents the three houses that the three little pigs lived in. Then the stair landings and ceiling above are painted teal and lead to a fake ivy-covered landing.

As Sharma explains, "Going with the themes and the fairytales, this is the dark forest. The stairs we painted teal to match the ceiling. That’s the river. It’s over the river and through the woods."

Houston's Hot Lunch Spot?

Shifting from design to service, one of the biggest changes from El Gran Malo will be the addition of lunch starting next week. McKinney explains how Sharma being called to jury duty during the construction taught them the importance of getting office workers their lunches quickly. "If (Sharma) did not come back to the courtroom (within an hour), they issue a bench warrant for your arrest. He understood the great exaggeration of that point — how important it is to honor someone's time at lunch."

Sharma says he understands that, even without the threat of arrest, people are in a hurry at lunch. "If you make somebody late, their boss yells at them. And when their boss yells at them, they blame it on you. Maybe you lose a guest. The way a big part of our menu is designed is everything’s very quick, but lunch has to be very, very quick."

 "If you make somebody late, their boss yells at them. And when their boss yells at them, they blame it on you. Maybe you lose a guest." 

Towards that end, the menu designed by former Bootsie's Heritage Cafe/Rainbow Lodge chef Randy Rucker still has a wide variety of the tacos, ceviches and other speedy items that El Gran Malo is known for. At a friends and family preview last week, Rucker and executive chef Ben Rabbani served tacos filled with lengua, carnitas and mushrooms that all seemed to please diners. 

"Again, you hire your weaknesses," McKinney says. "Lunch isn’t something we’ve experienced, but these very talented individuals do have that experience. They’ve done lunch."

Sharma notes that the presence of trained chefs in the kitchen means "we can continue to change the menu. It can keep growing," but, for now, they're just trying to get used to preparing the food that Rucker has created." Once the weather warms up, El Big Bad will add brunch service too. 

Now that El Big Bad is open, Sharma and McKinney can turn their attention to finding a new home for El Gran Malo, which will vacate its current location at the end of February after Roost Bistro chef Kevin Naderi purchased the building in April. Although McKinney predicts "a slight interruption in service" from one location to the next, she says that she and Sharma are committed to remaining in or near The Heights. 

Sharma says they're looking for a 5,000 square-foot space that's fully ADA compliant. The current El Gran Malo location is only 2,000 square-feet and couldn't be brought up to full code without extensive renovations.

"Because that space was small, because that bar was small, we got El Gran Malo," Sharma says. "The thing that is going to be interesting for us here is transplanting that idea to a space that has less of those constraints and keeping the principles we’ve developed while being able to grow a little beyond it.

"That’s something we’re very excited about."

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