Growing up in Austin, Texas, the original Chuy's on Barton Springs Road was a regular fixture in my family's restaurant night rotation. Only back then, it wasn't the "original" Chuy's — it was the only Chuy's. While the restaurant first opened more than 30 years ago, its national expansion was slow to start, and has really only gained serious steam in the last eight years or so.
Not that any of that ever mattered to me. All I cared about was the food.
My first few years visiting Chuy's, I explored the entire menu. Stacked enchiladas, chuychangas, fajitas...eventually, I tried the chicken flautas, and have never been able to bring myself to order anything else since. Somewhere along the way, I also discovered the "secret" jalapeno ranch dip. It was free, but you had to know to ask for it — they didn't just bring it out, like they did with the salsa. Then I came up with the brilliant idea of mixing the dip and salsa together. The key was to ask for a separate empty salsa bowl so that I could mix up the perfect ratio: 2 parts dip to 1 part salsa. (Try it when you go - you can thank me later.)
But not all traditions at Chuy's revolved around the food. Like everyone else, when seated in the low-ceilinged "hubcap room" in the back, I would peel off the colored sticker dot that held my silverware packet closed, jot down my name, and stick it to one of the hubcaps that covered the ceiling. Then I'd scan the entire ceiling for the dot I'd left last time — but of course, despite my regular visits to the place, the ocean of dots had long since swallowed up the evidence of my last visit.
About ten years ago, I moved to the east coast. When I did, I left behind any hope of dining out on my favorite cuisine — one whose presence had been so ubiquitous in my life up until that point that I didn't even realize just how much I loved it. But you know what they say — you never know how much you love something until it's gone. Sniff.
Sure, there were "Tex-Mex" restaurants on the east coast, but each one I tried was more disappointing than the last. I nearly burst into tears upon tasting the excuse for enchiladas that was served at a certain downtown establishment named after my hometown.
I will say, delicious Tex-Mex does exist in DC, if you know where to look. When the craving hits, certain menu items at the original Tortilla Coast on the Hill really hit the spot (like the queso with taco meat and the quesadillas). The opening of Mi Cocina in Friendship Heights was greeted with much fanfare by area Texans, and for good reason — at last, a Tex-Mex joint in town with true Texas roots! But while I do enjoy their fare, they just can't quite measure up to my first love.
So every time I've gone home to Texas over the past ten years, a visit to Chuy's has been a non-negotiable agenda item. And while I can't always make it back to the original, luckily for me, the Chuy's folks have quality control on their food down to an exact science. I've been to many a Chuy's in many a city, and while ambience-wise the spinoffs are usually just a mere shadow of the character of the original, the food has always been every bit as delicious. So I was beyond thrilled when I heard that my first love was coming to Fairfax.
Pulling up to the recently-opened outpost, everything about the restaurant's façade and its surrounding strip mall screams "suburbs." Inside, the place is decked out with the typical faux-Austin trappings that I've seen at all of the other spinoff locations I've visited: the replicas of tchotchkes that feel fun and funky on Barton Springs Road, but are just kind of predictably tacky out here in the NoVa ‘burbs. The funny fish with the sunglasses, the Elvis paraphernalia, the "nacho car" (which they don't actually even have at the original — that appears to have been added during the rapid expansion phase) — they're all there. There are even a bunch of hubcaps stuck to the ceiling...but they're too high up for anyone to reach.
But once we get seated, the evening took a turn for the familiar. You still have to know to ask for the jalapeno ranch dip. And that extra empty bowl to make your custom ranch-salsa mix. And it all tastes EXACTLY the same: the dips, the flautas, the beans, rice, chips, and samples off of anyone else's plate who was willing to share. We all had to be rolled out of there, stuffed to the gills with happy tummies and groaning waistlines — just like when I was a kid. This place may not truly look or feel like home, but it sure does taste like home. And in the end, that's all that really matters to me.
Editor's Note: A second D.C.-area location of Chuy's opened this week in Springfield — bring on the ranch sauce.