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Photos courtesy of Roll-Em-Up Taquitos

A new restaurant concept from California has landed in Texas, staking a bold claim: Called Roll-Em-Up Taquitos, it calls itself the first place dedicated to taquitos, and who are we to disagree.

Pearland will be the first Houston-area locale, at 15818 Hwy 288. In mid-September, Roll-Em-Up opened their first Texas location in Garland, at 5949 Broadway Blvd., serving taquitos with a variety of fillings, along with key sides including corn on the cob, queso, and guacamole.

There are five taquito options, including shredded beef, shredded chicken, potato, cheese, and avocado. Taquitos can be topped with cheese, spicy house sauce, guac sauce, queso sauce, and their "lit" sauce.

Other menu items include bacon beans, rice, bomb AF chips, churro doughnuts drizzled with caramel, and street corn with butter, mayo, and cotija cheese, with an optional dusting of Hot Cheetos and Tajin or coated in queso. You can get the corn on the cob or cut into a cup.

Roll-Em-Up Taquitos was founded by father-and-son Ron and Ryan Usrey, who debuted the concept in Chino Hills in 2019. The taquitos are hand-rolled and pan-fried to order in cast iron skillets, and the restaurants also boast a colorful interior with a bright and cheerful mural that runs the length of the back wall.

There are tables for inhouse dining, but takeout is also a huge deal, with party packs of 25 or 50 taquitos, for $50 to $100, accompanied by shredded cheese, guac sauce, sour cream, mild sauce, and LIT sauce.

taquitos Taquitos topped with queso and guacamole. Roll Em Up Taquitos

Restaurant operators David Weaver and Blake Terry, who have worked with many brands including Wingstop, The Catch, Burger House, Subway, Smashburger, and Rusty Taco, are bringing the concept to Texas.

"Having great food is no longer enough in today's fast casual space and this is what made us thrilled about Roll-Em-Up," Weaver says in a statement. "The food, ambiance, and operations of Roll-Em-Up are outstanding, not to mention the reggae music playing in the background. It's a vibrant, fun, and delicious place to be and we had to be a part."

They'll build and operate a percentage of stores, and also recruit and train future franchise partners in the region.

In addition to Pearland and Garland, there's already a location coming to Hurst, at 1842 Precinct Line Rd., opening in fall 2022, with Amarillo in the works, as well.

Iconic Tex-Mex restaurant famed for funny signs cooks up Texas expansion

Sign of success

El Arroyo — the iconic Tex-Mex restaurant in West Austin that’s famous for the witty, sassy, ever-changing messages on its black-and-white outdoor marquee sign — is branching out.

The restaurant plans to have five more restaurants in Texas open or under construction within the next three years. For now, El Arroyo’s sole location is at 1624 W. Fifth St.

El Arroyo’s first location outside Austin will be at the popular Gruene historic district in New Braunfels. Next year, a two-story building under the landmark Gruene water tower will be remodeled for El Arroyo. The building is on the site of tubing company Rockin’ R River Rides, co-owned by the head honchos at El Arroyo.

Ellis Winstanley, co-owner of El Arroyo with wife Paige, says Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and West Texas are among the places being considered for new locations. And he doesn’t rule out a second location in the Austin area. Each of the new restaurants will seat about 180 to 220 customers.

Winstanley says each restaurant will serve the same menu as the West Austin location. And the décor and vibe of the new spots will parallel that of the original restaurant, which opened in 1975.

“It’s not going to all of a sudden become a fancy place with a high price point or something like that,” Winstanley says.

So, what about the black-lettered sign that’s synonymous with El Arroyo?

Every new location will feature a version of the Austin sign, serving up the brand’s “same personality and voice,” Winstanley says. How the Austin sign will be replicated at other restaurants is still being worked out. Whatever all-caps message appears on the Austin board at the time will likely be repeated at the other locations, although the lettering and the sign itself won’t be identical, he says.

“It’s not going to look exactly the same, no matter what you do,” Winstanley says.

All of restaurants will be owned by the same group that controls the West Austin location, he says. El Arroyo might consider a franchise model in the future, though.

Expansion has been on the table at El Arroyo for seven or eight years, Winstanleysays. But a couple of things held back the Winstanleys, who bought the restaurant in 2012, and their investment partners.

“One, we didn’t feel like we had a clear handle on what we really wanted the brand to become at that point. It’s been an evolution,” Winstanley says. “And then secondly, the real estate market was nuts.”

You might say the growth of the El Arroyo brand has been nuts.

Aside from operating what’s transforming into a restaurant chain, El Arroyo sells an array of branded products — almost all of them starring clever messages from the restaurant’s sign. These include books, coffee mugs, party cups, coasters, cocktail napkins, candles, ballcaps, T-shirts, calendars, magnets, car fresheners, yard signs, and YETI coolers.

Also on tap are El Arroyo’s first two packaged foods — salsa (set to roll out later this year) and margarita mix (coming out sometime after the salsa).

The progression of the El Arroyo brand has been steady and methodical, according to Winstanley.

“The wheels start to come off as people take a big slug of equity, and their goal is to produce as high of a return as possible. So they just start going as fast as they can,” he says. “Sometimes it works out, and a lot of times the brand really loses its identity.”

“We have the opposite incentive,” Winstanley adds. “We have different lines of businesses that need to stay in sync to be successful. And the brand has a very clear voice. It’s not trying to figure out who it is.”

Photo by Kirsten Gilliam

Masterminds behind River Oaks see-and-be-seen spot bringing family-friendly Tex-Mex to Bellaire

900 tortillas per hour

One of Houston's top names in Tex-Mex is bringing a family-friendly restaurant to Bellaire. Palacios Murphy hospitality group will open Mandito's in early 2023 at 5101 Bellaire Blvd.

Best known for River Oaks favorite Armandos, Palacios Murphy is owned by Cinda and Armando Palacios. The couple also own Lulu's, an Italian restaurant that opened last year in the same shopping center as Armandos. Mandito's original location is part of Palacios Murphy's operations in Round Top. Just as Lulu's is named for Armando's nickname for Cinda, Mandito's stems from a nickname Armando had as a child — "little Armando."

While Armandos is known for its fine dining aspects such as white table cloths and its signature Thursday night dance parties, Mandito's will be a more family friendly establishment with a more casual atmosphere.

"Families and large groups will feel right at home at Mandito’s which will feature a full-on dining experience for kids with a custom kid’s menu and of course the visible tortilla machine for additional entertainment," Cinda Palacios explains in an email. "Mandito’s will have a more accessible menu…the white tablecloths will stay at Armandos."

That "visible tortilla machine" will be a BE&SCO Press and Oven that's capable of producing 900 tortillas per hour, according to the restaurant. It will certainly stay busy supplying tortillas for dishes such as burritos, enchiladas, flautas, and fajitas. The restaurant is also known for its signature burrito bowl, a clever reimagining of a taco salad with ground beef, steak, or chicken topped with lettuce, corn, cheese, avocado, beans, and more. Mandito's will also offer plant-based options.

Cocktails will be centered around different margaritas along with house originals. Food and drinks will be available for either dine-in or to-go at both lunch and dinner.

All that eating and drinking will take place in a space designed by New York-based architect Rocco DiLeo. It will also feature a 42-seat, climate-controlled patio.

"The opportunity to bring Mandito’s to Bellaire and surrounding communities proved to be one that aligned with our goal to elevate the Tex-Mex experience,” chief operating officer Alex Curley said in a statement. “We are incredibly grateful to have amassed a team of top tier talent from around the country with the goal of placing guests first and building on the legacy of our flagship restaurant, Armandos."

Speaking of Armandos, the legendary Tex-Mex restaurant will celebrate its 45th anniversary in 2023. Asked about the decision to bring Mandito's to Bellaire rather than Armandos, Cinda Palacios notes that the couple is protective of its flagship.

"There is an indescribable magic that surrounds the Armandos experience from late-night dancing on Thursdays to Sunday family dinners filled with regulars." she writes. "Palacios Murphy wants to maintain the integrity of that magic rather than try to recreate it in another space at this time."

The signature chicken burrito bowl.

Photo by Kirsten Gilliam
The signature chicken burrito bowl.
Courtesy photo

Goode Co. finally confirms Tex-Mex concept coming to familiar Heights location

more fajitas in the heights

Heights residents will soon have a new option for fajitas, queso, margaritas, and other Tex-Mex fare. Goode Co. has revealed its bringing its Kitchen & Cantina concept to the neighborhood later this year.

The local restaurant group leased the former Down House space on Yale St. last year, but has waited to reveal its plans for the location. Although the company isn't ready to say when the restaurant will open, it is imminent enough that they've started the hiring process.

“Goode Co. is always looking for great spaces and new neighborhoods to become a part of, and we are excited to be opening Kitchen & Cantina in the Heights,” Levi Goode, chef and president of Goode Company Restaurants, said in a statement. “We are looking forward to doing something Goode in this unique part of Houston.”

First opened in The Woodlands in 2017, Goode Co. Kitchen & Cantina serves Tex-Mex fare such as fajitas and enchiladas alongside Goode Co. classics like seafood campechana and grilled redfish on the half shell. The menu also nods to the Goode family's South Texas roots with dishes such as pork and green chile empanadas and grilled Texas quail. A Memorial location also opened in 2017.

“In some ways, (the menu) is a current interpretation of and inspired by our taqueria, which was inspired by my grandmother’s style of cooking,” Goode told CultureMap in 2017. “Whatever you find at your favorite Tex-Mex, you’ll find something similar here from the menu items, but we put our own style on it. Tried to hit every detail we could with the food and drink we offer here.”

Cocktails are also an important part of the concept. The agave-focused beverages include a number of margarita options — everything from the classic rocks or frozen to a roasted poblano and strawberry mezcal — along with palomas, house cocktails, and tequila flights.

Opening Kitchen & Cantina will be Goode Co.'s second opening this year. The company debuted Fish Camp, a new seafood concept, back in May.

2 beloved Texas chains cruise onto list of country’s best drive-thrus

Texans’ bread and butter

The rest of the U.S. is quickly catching on to some fast-food addictions most Texans have been noshing for years, with one automotive-focused media site driving some national praise for two beloved San Antonio-based eateries.

Online publication Jalopnik recently released its reader-curated list of the Best Drive-Thru Restaurants in America and — likely unsurprising to devourers of burgers and Tex-Mex in the Lone Star State — Whataburger and Taco Cabana, both based in San Antonio, are featured among the top 10 favorites.

Jalopnik notes that perhaps Whataburger’s popularity among drive-thru consumers has something to do with the chain’s many burger options (“Maybe its popularity is thanks to the rumored 36,864 different burger combinations that customers can create with the firm’s range of toppings.”)

In further applauding the burger chain, which has maintained an almost cult-like following since the brand first launched in Texas in the 1950s, one Jalopnik reader even shared a story about a Whataburger newbie’s first experience.

“Whataburger, hands down,” the poster told Jalopnik of their favorite drive-thru in the country. “If it’s on the menu, it can be put on your burger. I once had the joy of watching a kid from New Jersey eat Whataburger for the first time. It was like that scene from The Road when the son has a Coke for the first time in his life.”

In addition to that transformative experience (true Texans know a perfect Whataburger meal can be an epiphany), Jalopnik readers also hailed Taco Cabana as one of the best drive-thrus in the country.

Though Jalopnik, which is clearly not based in Texas, downplays the Tex-Mex chain’s formidability, calling it “another taco joint” that serves up a host of “Mexican treats,” readers (and likely Texas-based devotees) set the publication straight, calling out Taco Cabana’s fresh-made flour tortillas, array of salsas, and boozy offerings, and making mention of the brand’s way-better-than-Taco-Bell quality.

“Multiple orders of magnitude better than Taco Hell,” one Jalopnik poster says.

Another reader notes the chain is a middle-of-the-night go-to, something many Texans can also relate to.

“Taco Cabana,” the poster says of their favorite drive-thru, “especially the 24-hour ones. Nothing, I mean nothing, beats a couple of barbacoa tacos at 3 am.”

Other drive-thru chains scoring a spot in Jalopnik’s reader-based top 10 include Wyoming-based Taco John’s, ubiquitous California burger joint In-N-Out, California-based Baker’s Burgers, Jack in the Box, Chicago-born hot dog spot Portillo’s, universally loved Chik-Fil-A, quality burger joint Culver’s, and sandwich eatery Runza.

Courtesy of Freebirds

Texas-based burrito chain rolls out plan to double Lone Star State locations

A LITTLE BIRDIE TOLD US

The Lone Star State’s No. 1 burrito is giving Texas the bird.

Austin-based Freebirds World Burrito, voted by consumers as the most craveable brand for two years running, has announced it plans to double its footprint in Texas in the next five years, opening enough new locations in 2021 alone to make the company up to the second-largest burrito chain in Texas, according to Freebirds.

Though the burrito biz hasn’t spilled the beans about the specific number of stores it plans to add, nor responded to an info request about particular locations, a Freebirds news release does say the main areas of growth will be in Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, though the expansion is statewide.

The expansion news comes on the heels of Freebirds’ recent interior and exterior design update, which is rolling out to all 55 locations in Texas and includes style elements that speak to Freebirds’ “deep-rooted state pride and heritage,” as well as updated interiors, colorful graffiti-style murals, and modern furniture.

Freebirds has also expanded its menu beyond its stout burrito offerings to include an array of salads, tacos, nachos, quesadillas, meal kits, bowls, and its most recent addition: low-carb bowls.

“With an updated tech stack in the works, companywide interior design refresh, and incredible tribe members and fanatics, Freebirds is taking flight across Texas. We’re on our way to becoming the biggest burrito chain in the state,” says Freebirds CEO Alex Eagle. “We’re looking at a solid 20 percent growth year-over-year.”

While the expansion could bring the number of Freebirds locations in Texas to well over 100, by comparison, competitor Chipotle has more than 250 Texas locations. But given Texans’ — and particularly Austinites’ — proclivity to support locally spawned businesses, Freebirds’ growth will likely be welcomed by burrito devotees.

Taking Freebirds under its wing is Austin-based firm The Retail Strategy, which provides commercial real estate expertise and deal support for retailers and restaurant chains.

“We are thrilled to partner with Freebirds World Burrito and provide location intelligence and strategic site selection in order to secure optimal locations across the state,” says Lauren Brunner, CEO of The Retail Strategy. “We look forward to being a part of the brand’s growth and helping more people enjoy Texas’ No. 1 burrito.”

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

CultureMap Wine Guy Chris Shepherd reveals the ultimate holiday 'death match' party game

wine guy Wednesday

Editor's note: Long before Chris Shepherd became a James Beard Award-winning chef, he developed enough of a passion for wine to work at Brennan's of Houston as a sommelier. He maintains that interest to this day. When Chris expressed interest in writing about wine-related topics for CultureMap, we said yes.

In this week's column, he shares his favorite way to win more wine. Take it away, Chris.

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If you’re looking to throw a killer party — one that’s unforgettable — I have an idea for you. It doesn’t have to happen during the holidays, but it will make your holiday party more fun. Let me introduce you to Wine Club Death Match.

My friend Ellen Hur, whose classmates at graduate school first started this game, introduced Wine Club Death Match to us here in Houston a few years back. It’s a game that combines things that I love — tasting wine, talking to friends, talking about wine, and, as part of a little friendly competition, you can win the ultimate prize, more wine!

“I had heard about Wine Club Death Match and thought it sounded really fun,” Ellen explains. “I started playing with a few friends in our little New York City apartments, back in 2007 or so. We liked the idea that we could entertain ourselves without having to go out all the time. Plus, if you weren’t too discerning, which we were not, or if your friends had good taste in wine, you could grow a decent wine collection pretty quickly.”

Here's how it works:

  • Every person who comes to the party is asked to bring two bottles of the same wine that fit the night’s theme (more info on that below) and the night’s price point (e.g., each bottle must be under $25).
  • When each guest arrives, one bottle is immediately stored out of sight, and the second bottle is put in a paper bag and labeled A through Z (or however you want to distinguish the covered bottles from each other).
  • As the party goes on, guests taste each wine (responsibly) and keep their own notes about which bottle they like the best.
  • Once everyone has tasted — or the tasting portion of the party is over — everyone votes for their favorite bottle. The host takes the ballots and tallies them up for the big reveal.
  • The person who brought the bottle that gets the most votes is crowned winner of Wine Club Death Match and wins the entire stash of the second bottles that have been stored away. If you have 10 people at the party participating in WCDM, the winner takes home 10 bottles of wine. Not too shabby!
  • Spend the rest of the party lobbying the winner to give you your favorite bottle (or two) as a consolation prize.

We’ve played with our friends a few times, and it’s a fun, unique way to bring a little extra excitement to a party or gathering. It’s an automatic conversation starter. Plus, there’s a lot of strategy involved. If you’re fighting to the death (or, in this case, fighting for all the wine), you’ll need to have a game plan to take home all the spoils.

A few of my favorite themes:

  • Region + Grape/Varietal or color + Price Point is always a good theme (Oregon Pinot Noir under $30, South American reds under $27, French rosé under $20, Spanish Cava under $25, or my least favorite option— Gewürztraminer from anywhere in the world at any price point—not my favorite varietal)
  • Wine from a region you didn’t know made wine.
  • Wines mentioned in music lyrics
  • Wines from a vineyard named for a person

The beauty of this game is that it’s flexible. Want to pair the tasting wines with a specific dish and make it a more hearty affair? Go for it! Want to go all champagne and deal with the consequences later? Do it! Want to tell everyone to bring magnums? Why not? Want to bring the concept to more of a dinner party atmosphere? Cool. Have fun with it, and learn something.

Let me make a few suggestions to optimize your Wine Club Death March:

  • For WCDM to operate most optimally, the sweet spot is 8-12 guests. If you live in a city like NYC, you must consider how you are transporting all the wine home. For example, 12 bottles on a subway is tough. Luckily, 12 bottles in a Houston Uber is much more doable.
  • That being said, make WCDM yours! If you want a bigger party, go for it – you can have two winners, or be creative about how to divvy up the winnings and how to make sure everyone can taste the wines.
  • Set the price point based on your guests. If your guests are bigger spenders who want to bulk up their cellars, you can have a higher price point. But I think everyone would love a solid stash of $20-$30 wines.
  • Go heavy on the apps. Even small tastes of wine can add up.
  • The wines for WCDM are for tasting, not imbibing during the party, so have other drinks available – especially if you have guests who aren’t participating in the competition.
  • Water should be plentiful, and ride shares are a must.

Let me know how this works out for you. Invite me!

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Contact our Wine Guy via email at chris@chrisshepherdconcepts.com.

Chris Shepherd won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2014. He recently parted ways with Underbelly Hospitality, a restaurant group that currently operates four Houston restaurants: Wild Oats, GJ Tavern, Underbelly Burger, and Georgia James. The Southern Smoke Foundation, a non-profit he co-founded with his wife Lindsey Brown, has distributed more than $10 million to hospitality workers in crisis through its Emergency Relief Fund.

Get happy with all-day Sunday happy hour at this Galleria pub

Come on down

Some pubs have it all: great food, even better drinks, and an atmosphere you crave. Ducky McShweeney’s Pub is just such a place, offering all that and so much more.

Ducky's is the new premier gathering spot in the heart of the Galleria area. Its atmosphere and extensive list of spirits, wine, and beer have guests coming back again and again. The menu offers everything from shepherd's pie to sushi, and is open daily from 11 am-2 am.

Visitors can watch the game (or all of them!) on more than 19 televisions throughout the pub. All NFL games are broadcast, so you won't miss a single play.

And game day bucket specials will surely keep the whole table happy. After all, it doesn't get much better than a bucket of beer and a cheese pizza for $25.

The pub is not only ideal for game days, but happy hour happens all day on Sundays. Monday through Saturday, get happy from 2-6 pm, and enjoy day-of-the-week specials as well.

Monday is industry night, and has a reverse happy hour from 10 pm-2 am. Tipsy Tuesday offers $5 tequila, $3 pints, and a $5 pepperoni pie.

Wine Down Wednesdays bring trivia night, where you and all your friends are invited to win prizes. Plus, let's not forget you get half off select bottles of wine.

Thursday is steak night with live music. That includes a $25 14-ounce ribeye and specials on tomahawks and filets. On Friday, get $5 off any whiskey, all day long.

Looking for your next favorite brunch? It happens at Ducky's every Saturday and Sunday from 11 am-3 pm.

The menu includes breakfast favorites with a twist such as Paddy's Pancake Tacos, which wraps two buttermilk pancakes around scrambled eggs, bacon, avocado, maple syrup, and hot sauce; and Mother Duckin' Waffles, with four chicken wings, two Belgian waffles, black pepper berry sauce, and whipped cream. And, of course, all the boozy cocktails your heart desires.

For a more lunch-y brunch, there's the Kobe brunch burger with American Kobe beef, provolone cheese, sautéed mushrooms, greens, and a fried egg, served with fries; or Crab Fried Rice that's a savory mix of lump crab, scallions, garlic, cod roe, and fried egg.

If your mouth is already watering, head to 2025 Post Oak Blvd. any day of the week. You can learn more about the pub and see the full menu here.

Downtown's devilish new bar serves up Mexico City vibes, live Latin music, and lots of tequila

downtown's newest nightclub

A new retro-styled, Mexican-inspired bar and nightclub is coming to downtown. La Diabla Retro Bar will open next Thursday, December 15, in the former Boomtown Coffee space at 300 Main Street.

Created by La Calle owner Ramon Soriano and his business partner Fernando Villegas, La Diabla builds on La Calle’s reputation for bringing the flavors and atmosphere of Mexico City to Houston. Just as all three locations of La Calle serve street style tacos in a vibrant atmosphere, La Diabla will pay homage to Mexico City pop culture icons of the '80s and '90s through art, music, and, of course, food and drink.

“We are serious about fresh ingredients, Mexico City, music, and good times,” Soriano said in a statement. “We are '80s guys, and we love the way the music of that decade is connecting with a new generation. La Diabla is bringing the tastes and sounds of our youth back again in ways that can feel both nostalgic and new, all at the same time.”

Portraits of Mexican pop and rock icons such as Juan Gabriel, Thalía, Luis Miguel, and others will adorn the walls. Other design elements include TVs that will show music videos and a 30-foot long, 8-foot tall bar that will display La Diabla’s selection of agave spirits such as tequila and mezcal.

Turning to music, bands will perform every night La Diabla is open. Thursdays will feature balada, described in a release as “soft, romantic Latin pop,” with more uptempo Latin pop on Fridays. Latin rock will keep the party going on Saturday nights. In between sets, DJs will spin tunes that match the night’s theme.

An extensive selection of cocktails and other boozy beverages will also puts revelers in the proper state of mind. Expect La Calle favorites like margaritas, piña coladas, and micheladas along with mojitos and four flavors of Mexican candy shots. An extensive selection of tequilas and caguamas (32-ounce bottles of beer) will also be available.

While La Calle specializes in tacos and tortas, La Diabla will serve three flavors of flautas: chicken, carnitas, and papa con queso (potato with cheese). They’ll be wrapped in corn tortillas and fried.