When two Tex-Mex restaurants opened in New York City this spring, it seemed as if every Texan in town sent an email about it to every other Texan in town. And these weren’t casual messages but exclamation mark–filled, all-caps expressions of unparalleled excitement, like “BOTH PLACES HAVE SO MUCH QUESO!!!” and “WHY ISN’T THERE A TACO EMOJI YET?!”
And then the reviews of El Original and Javelina started rolling in. Eater said El Original “simply doesn’t trust New Yorkers with chiles.” In a particularly brutal takedown, the New York Times’s Pete Wells wrote that Javelina’s chile sauce “would make a wonderful way for Mexican-cooking teachers to show students what happens when you try to toast dried chiles and end up burning them instead.” New York gave each establishment zero stars. It was official: Javelina and El Original were duds.
But anyone who grew up with those old Pace Picante Sauce commercials knows better than to trust a New Yorker’s opinion of Texas food. And even if the cuisine was as bad as the critics were saying, this Texan–turned–New Yorker wondered if the restaurants themselves—their atmosphere, decor, music, and clientele—still might offer a much-missed sense of home. There was only one way to find out.
Javelina, located in the tony Gramercy neighborhood, was first on deck. Though large parties are well-advised to plan their visit weeks in advance, a reservation for one is easy, at least at the early–for–New York hour of 6:15 p.m. Walking into the space, you’re greeted by a large cactus, which, judging from my Facebook stream, has quickly assumed the role of backdrop to the best selfies taken on the premises.
Instead of screaming Tex-Mex, the rest of Javelina’s decor taps you on the shoulder and politely whispers it. In place of bright colors and strands of chile pepper lights, you’ll find various shades of green, white, and brown accompanied not by Tejano music but by Lana Del Rey. If you’re a homesick Texan looking to be transported back to the Lone Star State, you’ll have to rely on the queso and margaritas—and everyone in the restaurant seemed to be taking the trip. The youngish, after-work customers may not have been Texpats themselves, but they were respectful enough to order as if they were. Overhearing an enthusiastic “Another Ruby Redbird!” isn’t quite as transportive as, say, “Welcome to Taco Cabana, are you ready to order?” but it’s pretty darn close.
El Original, which was co-founded by a cookbook author who actually calls herself the Homesick Texan, is a lot bigger than Javelina—it’s the kind of place that, in Texas, would have a paved parking lot plus a gravel one for overflow across the street. There’s considerably less buzz about it among local displaced Texans, but that’s probably due to its tourist-heavy Hell’s Kitchen location. Inside the expansive restaurant, just about everyone seemed to be from out of town.
Though the decor, with its lone stars and Mexican folk art, was decidedly more Texan than Javelina’s, the restaurant’s most charming reminder of home was the Fiestaware. El Original is much more platter-heavy than Javelina, and plenty of customers had ordered a classic combination dinner of one enchilada, one taco, beans, and rice. El Original calls this meal “El Miguelito Fuerte,” but most Texans probably know it better as “Dinner #2.”
Apparently, getting the vibe of an authentic Tex-Mex restaurant just right isn’t the easiest feat when you’re closer to the Hudson River than the Rio Grande. All that excitement my friends felt when Javelina and El Original opened seems, in hindsight, a bit unmoored from reality. Maybe we were too optimistic. Maybe we were homesick. Or maybe we were just hungry.