Just across the street from Tony’s, the extremely popular Mexican restaurant on Ella, is a new joint also serving Mexican food, El Gran Malo. It’s primarily a bar, though it has food, and rather interesting food, at that. However, it does not intend to compete with Tony’s. This is what one of the owners told me during their opening the other night.
The dark, casual spot might be worth a visit while you are waiting for the wait at Tony’s to die down, or for an additional cocktail afterwards. And, the cocktails will be a big draw here. Many are rather unusual, but seem well-suited to Houston, and are all made with fresh ingredients. Many are tequila-based. This includes a Blueberry-Jalapeño-Cilantro Margarita, another featuring pecan, sea salt, black pepper and cayenne, which I really enjoyed, and Spanish 75, a tequila and grapefruit version of the famous cocktail. The house margarita made with fresh lime and lemon juice was easy to consume; too easy. There are also about two dozen beers, including several on tap, a few wines and over 50 tequilas and mezcals from a fine list.
The food offerings are as unique and appropriate as the drinks. The neo-Mexican menu is designed by Greg Lowry, executive chef of Voice who is soon moving to the new Triniti restaurant on Shepherd. The short list of offerings is rather different and appealing, and most of it worked the other night: figs stuffed with gorgonzola and wrapped in candied bacon; ceviche with jicama, cucumer and amarillo peppers; tamales; and empanadas filled with cotija and poblano and topped with shredded crab meat. There are also several kinds of tacos that can be ordered individually or in groups of five. These include shrimp, snapper, carnitas, pork belly, spicy chicken, or beef. Each different taco has its own accompaniments like pomegranate salsa, cilantro, charred scallions, pumpkin seeds, and vegetables pickled in house.
You might not be tempted to venture back across the street to eat afterwards. The food I had at El Gran Malo the other night was Mexican by way an experienced local chef who works in another genre. The flavors were generally fresher and more vibrant than typical Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant dishes, and ingredients often stood out in a dish. It was not taqueria fare, but it was not quite Hugo’s, either. It was very enjoyable.
By the way, El Gran Malo means “The Big Bad” in Spanish according to the owners. Adding to the décor is an intentionally cheeky Mexican-themed mural that is broadly similar to the “Our Lady of the Bitchin’ Camaro” at All Saints Church in the Heights. Far more fitting, though.
El Gran Malo
2307 Ella Boulevard (at 23rd Street), 77008, (832) 767-3405
Open daily from 4 PM to 2 AM