A friend from the Houston area and I went to El Original with high hopes. We’d earlier visited Javelina and liked it a lot, though we easily nit-picked a few of its flaws — the chile con queso was way too fussy; the pecan-littered chile relleno read like some overdone rendition from Austin’s La Fonda San Miguel; the tamale came sadly cloaked in mole poblano and tasted nothing like San Antonio’s famously diminutive versions. And while Javelina had looked to us like any other New York bistro in spite of the stuffed peccary, El Original had the slightly hokey decor of a Tex-Mex eatery in Dallas or Houston. The size was right, too: Seating 150 or more with a façade that covered the better part of a city block, it was located over yonder in the badlands around 50th Street and 10th Avenue. It felt like the frontier.
El Original is the project of Lisa Fain, author of the blog Homesick Texan, and a couple of her Lone Star State pals — though it looked like somebody at Applebee’s might have also been involved. The place boasts three large dining rooms, a long bar, a lounge area of couches upholstered in red Naugahyde, and walls with barn wood wainscoting below white-washed bricks in a sort of cowpoke rustic. Yeehaw!
But we didn’t suspect that something was wrong till the queso arrived ($7 small, $11 large). The flowing yellow was like Velveeta — in a good way — and there were indeed some bits of tomato floating here and there, like you get in a can of RoTel chiles. "But where are the serrano peppers?" My friend complained, "and these chips taste stale like they came from a bag at the supermarket." Most Tex-Mex places back in Texas serve freshly fried tortilla chips. In a desperate attempt to remedy the queso’s lack of chiles, we called for a side of pickled jalapenos. Though the waiter readily assented to our request, the jalapenos never arrived.
Things looked up when the chili con carne came. Rather than using ground beef the way it’s done at Javelina, this cup of chili ($11) had little irregular fatty chunks in it, along with the regulation no beans. It arrived heaped with raw onions, grated cheese, and jalapenos. It was delicious. Not so the so-called armadillo eggs ($8) — a pair of cheese-oozing jalapenos cloaked in ground meat, breaded, and deep-fried. I don’t object to the concept, though don’t consider this dish a part of the Tex-Mex tradition. And the green buttermilk dressing that the eggs were napped in was pure hogwash.
One thing that had given us hope as we scanned El Original’s menu was the presence of combination platters like those that form the focus at most real Tex-Mex joints. We went for the numero uno ($22): one picadillo beef taco, one cheese enchilada with chili gravy, one beef tamale, one chile con queso tostada, guacamole, rice, and a choice of beans. On the positive side of the ledger, the tostada and the taco were right on the money; in fact, the taco was the best thing we ate all evening, its ground beef scented with cumin and cascading onto the plate when we bit into it. The beans were way too soupy and the tamale dry as a West Texas dust storm, while the enchilada was somewhere in the middle. The worst part was the so-called chili gravy, which tasted a lot like thinned-out mole poblano.
The skirt steak fajitas ($25) were only OK — the quantity of meat was deficient compared to the versions at Javelina and, especially, El Cantinero, and green bell peppers constituted the main other ingredient. The accompanying thimbleful of guac was so bland we shook our heads in disbelief — really just pureed avocados with no discernible onion, cilantro, or jalapeno flavor (though back home, Tex-Mex often omits the cilantro).
We picked two desserts: the pralines and the sopapillas ($6 each). In Texas, pralines are of two types, caramel-like or crumbly and sugary. These were from the crumbly school, though humped up rather than flat. They came three small ones to an order and were filled with plenty of pecans. The flavor was great, though the pralines were too moist by a mile. The sopapillas were small triangles, ten or so to a basket, and barely dabbed with honey. They needed a bowl of honey on the side, once again as it's done in Texas.
El Original simply doesn't trust New Yorkers with chiles
Ultimately our first visit to El Original was disappointing, suggesting that we hold out for a reservation at Javelina or just walk into El Cantinero anytime. The most disconcerting aspect was the general lack of chiles. While Tex-Mex is not the spiciest cuisine on earth, one expects the vinegary tang of canned jalapenos at the very least. Like many restaurateurs in the city, it seems like the crew at El Original simply doesn’t trust New Yorkers with chiles, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. But the margaritas ($10) were good and strong — which is maybe the whole point of the place. 735 10th Ave, (917) 382-5512