I have a confession to make: I don’t review every place I go to. Oops.
I am particularly hesitant to review places where someone has treated me to dinner, or places where I go with a friend who raves about it. Because let’s face it, I’m not going to be that guy who pisses in everyone’s cheerio’s.
Sure, I’ll go BACK and review it honestly, but if I feel that something is going to compromise my honesty when writing a review, I’d just as soon not write it. I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I refuse to sugar coat my reviews.
This review is a long time coming.
Houston, TX 77006
Anvil Bar & Refuge
Helpful note for New Englanders – if you’re looking for something like this in the area, try Drink in Boston. It’s very similar.
Why haven’t I reviewed Anvil? It’s simple. For one, Bobby (one of the proprietors) is a friend of two of my close friends, and I didn’t want any biases to color the review. More importantly, as much as I love a good cocktail (and, if you read my blog with even the remotest regularity, you know I do), I do not consider myself an expert. I do not know the subtle intricacies of a good mixed drink, nor do I know the history of the components. I hope to explore and improve my knowledge as I delve further into the foodie-verse, but for now, I would hate to represent myself as something I know is a work in progress.
That disclaimer having been said, I will proclaim Anvil is by far the best bar I have ever visited, and the standard to which I now hold all subsequent bars. The incredibly skilled mixologists whip up life altering libations with unparalleled precision. Despite its very considerable acclaim, Anvil remains humble and comfortable. It’s a place you can go to find a cocktail that appeals to your taste and current mental state, as well as a friendly bartender to engage in a conversation.
Anvil is located in an old tire store built in the 1950s. It claims that: “Designed and remodeled by the partners, the finished space reflects the same respect for history, elegant simplicity, and raw ingredients as the cocktails that are served there.” The bar and furniture are crafted from “locally salvaged artifacts” from antique stores, which makes it feel both high class and down-to-earth.
My friend once told me that Anvil is pre-Prohibition, meaning that their cocktail recipes come from the early 1900s (before the years of Prohibition: 1920-1933). An interesting aspect of this is that they do not serve vodka, as it was not around in those days. Also, since vodka has no flavor, it adds nothing to the cocktails. I thought that was fascinating. And accurate.
(This one is a little better. Source.)
I have never been to Anvil without seeing a crowd. Usually, the chairs and tables are completely full and there’s barely room to stand. The space is flooded with the hum of conversation, laughter and old friends catching up. Knowing how busy they are, I always make it a point to go on off-nights (as in, I avoid Anvil like the plague on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays after about 6:30pm, because waiting in line outside, underneath palmetto-infested oak trees, would seriously put me into cardiac arrest).
Luckily, MY old friend and I went on a Sunday at around 8. Although busy, we sat down at the bar and it was perfectly lovely.
The Food Drinks
We didn’t order anything this time around, but I’ve eaten at Anvil before and it’s always been surprisingly DELICIOUS. Think bar food elevated with gourmet touches and unique ingredients. KnightlyBoyfriend and I shared a cheesy and enjoyable margherita pizza once that had a nice crispy crust and bubbly cheese, and another time I had this sausage gravy and egg dish that threw me for a loop. Fried eggs served in a cast iron skillet with sausage gravy and crumbly homemade biscuits OH MY GOD. They don’t have it anymore, but PLEASE BRING IT BACK ANVIL IT WAS INCREDIBLE!!!
Their menu is currently undergoing a revamp with an acclaimed Houston chef. Should be even more incredible once he’s made his mark.
Moving onto the things that matter…
The drinks are simply superb. Anvil has a brief menu which changes regularly, but the mixologists there have more than that up their sleeves. Anvil used to have a menu of 100 cocktails (and a challenge to go with them), but they have since scaled back. However, the bartenders working there are masters of their craft and have seemingly infinite knowledge of what makes a good libation.
For the first drink, my friend and former college roommate, who we will call FABbetha, muttered to herself that she needed inspiration while perusing the menu. Our bartender overheard and immediately began probing for information about her drink preferences. She was pleasantly surprised and very grateful to have his assistance. Next, he inquired about my preferences and after about two exchanges said he knew just what I’d like.
FABbetha got a traditional daquiri – no, not the fruity frozen beverage, but a traditional daquiri made with rum, fresh lime juice and simple syrup. It was lovely and light and citrusy. Mucho awesome.
He whipped me up a corpse reviver #2, a staple from the 1930s that combines gin, Lillet, fresh lemon juice, Cointreau and absinthe. It was beautifully delicious. Light, with intense flavors that play out in layers on the tongue. It’s definitely a drink to be sipped, but each sip is smooth and enjoyable.
Simple presentation, elegant flavor.
And, I didn’t really get the vibe that it was ok to be all up in Anvil, wildly flashing my camera, royally pissing off the patrons just trying to enjoy their cocktails on a Sunday evening. So this picture will have to do.
Our drinks were $10 apiece. $27 total, including tip. I feel that this is EXTREMELY reasonable for cocktails of this caliber.
Summary and Final Rating
I’m opting out of a summary, since this is a relatively short post and I’m only reviewing one drink. I will also abstain from giving Anvil a final rating because a) their food menu is currently changing, so my rating will no longer be applicable and b) because I rate food, not cocktails.
That being said, I CAN say that Anvil is…
A KNIGHTED MEMBER OF THE RESTAURANT ROUND TABLE
The next string of posts will relate to my most recent Texas trip, where I experienced plenty of greatness in the form of hotels, food, drinks and fun.
In fact, it’s currently late-afternoon on my first day back and I have a headache and slight nausea. (<—Clearly, I started this before digressing to a rant about Boston real estate.) I think my drunk and fatty Texas liver is going through beer/queso/meat withdrawals. Unfortunate, really.
ANYWAY. Today I’m going to give you a glowing review for a place that is completely out of character for me. I know you guys think that I enjoy swanky lounges, little food and crazy ingredient combinations – and you’re absolutely right about that one – but I have some STRONG roots in the Dirty South that like to rear their menacingly hungry, fire-breathing heads from time to time.
Down here we like our food fried, covered in animal grease and absolutely terrible for you. A swanky lounge is NO place for traditional, stick-to-your-ribs Tex-Mex or southern food, sorry. Don’t get all special and try to gussy up down-home cookin’. Don’t! It’s best when it’s at its worst and served in a local, family-owned dive.
This place gets it.
4618 Dacoma Street
Houston, TX 77092
Tia Maria’s has no website. It’s too good for that pish-posh.
Here’s the Deal
In Houston (and, I would expect, all over Texas), finding the right Mexican food restaurant is a treacherous quest which may involve expensive bills, terrible dinners of limp meat (heh) and store-bought salsa, and watery margaritas. If you’re not careful, you might even stumble upon (gulp…I don’t even want to say it, it’s too horrible. But I’ll say it because I love you so much)…bad queso.
OH GOD! OH GOD! THE HORROR!!
Now, y’all know I love me some Chuy’s. Oh yes, I do. But Chuy’s is different. It’s Tex-Mex for the masses. If we’re talking the REAL DEAL go-to Tex-Mex place, it needs meet the following requirements:
- It has been around for over a decade (the longer, the better), and the decor must look exactly the same now as it did when it first opened
- Although you’d walk through fire to eat here, it’s located near your home – in fact, its following of local diners has reached the status of an exclusive club, or a cult
- MUST be cheap – like, less than $10 entrees cheap
- Those cheap entrees better be enough to feed an army
- EVERYTHING had better be homemade – and I’m talking everything, from the chips and salsa, to the queso, to the margaritas and each component of every entree
- Nothing on the menu has less than 37498232 calories, not even the appetizers
- Two words: Mariachi band
- The margaritas must be cheap, large, and knock you the hell off your feet
- The employees all know you by name
- You feel fiercely protective of it, and may even contemplate NEVER writing a blog post about it because you don’t want to give away the secret
But alas, I’m breaking rule #10 and my silence, because Tia Maria’s has ALL OF THIS.
Tia Maria’s is The Shit.
I have consistently dined at Tia Maria’s since I was 6 years old, and it is an irreplaceable neighborhood staple. Growing up, the employees all knew my mom and me by name, and although I conceded my “regular” status when I went to college (I know I know, what was I thinking?), they still know her and my stepdad.
Although the restaurant has expanded to support the high volume of locals who frequent its lair, the decor looks exactly the same as it did 20 years ago.
(the only reason it isn’t PACKED here is because we went about 30 minutes before close on a Sunday evening.)
It’s a total dive, but I don’t care. I love it. I love everything about it, down to the colorful, mismatched dishes, the waiters that speak half-Spanish and call you “senorita” (fun fact: when I was in school, I practiced my Spanish by having conversations with the waitstaff and owner) and the bright teal vinyl tablecloths.
And you know what? I’d throw a fit if they tried to change a thing. Even that carpet. I love every dated inch of this place because if it were spruced up it’d lose its appeal and its authenticity.
It’s always loud, always bustling, and yet, the wait is never longer than 20 minutes. For kids like me in the area, it is tradition to head to Tia Maria’s with the family after football games, the rodeo and any after school event. On Friday and Saturday nights, they have a Mariachi band. On game nights, the TVs are blaring. Home away from home.
Funny story: my friend (up here) was dating this girl from Houston. He told her he’d been down there to visit a friend (moi), and somehow he mentioned that he’d been to Tia Maria’s and was obsessed. She stops dead and goes, “who do you know? Because I know this person.” Sure enough, it was a girl I went to both middle school and college with. CRAZY, right?!?! (Hi P.D., if you’re reading!)
Three words: Cheap, Plentiful, DELICIOUS
If you ask any two people in Houston about their favorite Mexican food restaurants, they’ll give you two different answers. That being said, I’ve tried other local favorites. MANY other local favorites. Tia Maria’s is the only one where you can get such delicious food for so cheap. You can find cheap and plentiful, or plentiful and delicious, or cheap and delicious, but never have I found all three components in one place. Cheap, plentiful and delicious food.
I also like that, despite being some of the most unhealthy food available on God’s green earth, the food isn’t swimming in grease.
This place has it all, beginning with paper-thin tortilla chips fresh from the fryer, accompanied by delightfully spicy (both in heat and in flavor) salsa.
This salsa’s the real deal. Tomatoes, onions, jalepenos and Mexican spices stewed together for what tastes like hours, served warm and loaded onto a crispy tortilla chip.
There are only two things that can improve this scenario. I think you might have an inkling what they are…
(Don’t you love the colorful serving dishes?)
Tia Maria’s is famous around these parts for its margaritas. First of all, they’re the size of a small child (not that you should drink babies, especially alcoholic ones) and available for around 6 bucks. They have a few types, but if you know what’s good for you, order a Golden margarita, frozen, with salt. And yes, I’ll judge you harshly if you skip the salt.
Golden margaritas contain a top shelf, house-made, secret concoction (not a fake, sugary mix from a bottle) of booze galore in the form of tequila (and perhaps triple sec?), lime and copious amounts of crack (not really, but they may as well). The mix is dispensed into your small country-sized glass and topped with a floater of grand marnier (hence, “golden”). When it arrives, you stir in the floater and enjoy the best margarita EVER.
And kudos to you if you can drink more than one and NOT end up with a liver that that’s all “deuce, bitch, I’m out” and then shrivels up and dies.
Or, you know, a massive hangover.
Tia Maria’s queso is also phenomenal (top 3 definitely, behind Chuy’s and Molinas, a place I haven’t yet reviewed). A savory blend of Mexican cheese is beautifully melted into this thick, creamy dip with just enough salsa and spices to enhance the natural silkiness of the cheese. I have no idea which cheeses they use, but it has a deep and comforting flavor that captures the essence of the cheese (as in, there’s nothing covering it up. It’s pure cheese at its best).
I blame the ‘ritas.
HARK! Praytell, what is that INTOXICATING smell?
Tia Maria’s fajitas are my favorite. We ordered a mixed plate (chicken and beef) fajitas for two, and this sizzling, snapping, steaming concoction arrived soon after. The smell alone will knock your effing socks off, and the food is enough to feed an army. KnightlyBoyfriend himself could eat a small army, and we still had leftovers.
Served with the traditional accompaniments (each person gets his or her own plate of sides): rice, refried beans, guac, lettuce, salsa fresca and fresh tortillas.
Here’s the deal – I KNOW you’re not going to like this, but there’s a special way to treat these fajitas. You see, they’re loaded with delicious spices that combine to create this incredible, savory crust on the meat once they’ve caramelized. So even though you’ll want to devour the plate before the server sets it on the table, DON’T! Hands off the fageetas. Eat your queso and let them sit for like, 5-10 minutes to develop the crust that can only happen after extended contact with the cast iron skillet.
You won’t be disappointed.
In fact, you’ll tell me you doubted me. Then you’ll tell me you cursed me for making you wait. But in the end, grasshopper, you will be handsomely rewarded for your patience in the form of crusty meats and caramelized vegetables.
Many apologies, I did not get a picture of the final assembly. After 3 hours of taking 4790327402 billion pictures of the Texas highway, SOMEONE exhausted my battery. (Yeah, we’re all looking at YOU, KNIGHTLYBOYFRIEND).
To assemble, take a tortilla and fill it with 3-5 strips of meat (I like to mix the chicken and beef), some caramelized onions and peppers, a small spoonful of rice, a smear of each the guacamole and refried beans and a sprinkling of lettuce. If you’re feeling frisky, dump some salsa and queso in there.
Then, merrily roll yourself from the restaurant and take a siesta.
The bill was about $34 for the two of us. I don’t have the individual prices of each item and the menu isn’t available online, but that amount includes a ridiculous amount of food. (I’m going to approximate the cost of each item.)
- Bottomless chips/salsa (always free)
- Queso ($6)
- 2 Golden margaritas ($7 each)
- Fajitas for
five thousand two ($15)
- Texas state taxes, which apparently were used to pay for Rick Perry’s Prayer Day
We also tipped like 30% because our waiter was amazing.
Summary of this Knight at the Restaurant
- Tia Maria’s is a total dive, but it’s a local legend that’s been around for 20+ years (I only say 20 because that’s how long I”VE been going there. Who knows how much longer it’s been around.)
- This is what you think of when you think of Texas Mexican food. Colorful decor, Mariachi bands and gigantic portions. Don’t go here if you want something healthy…no such thing exists on the menu.
- Its specialties are the Golden margaritas and fajitas. Get both and you will NOT be disappointed. They also have some really awesome upside-down tacos, and their entree platters are the size of the damn table. I usually get fajitas or tacos, but people rave about the entree platters, too.
- I challenge you to find a Mexican food place with food this plentiful and this cheap that tastes this good anywhere else in Houston. It’s the perfect trifecta of Mexican food awesomeness, and believe it or not, despite the plethora of excellent Mexican food restaurants in Houston, the trifecta is rare.
- I make it a point to take every New England (and otherwise) visitor to Tia Maria’s, and each one of them leaves raving about it. You’ve gotta go.
FINAL RATING: 4.5/5.0
A KNIGHTED MEMBER OF THE RESTAURANT ROUND TABLE
Question: Tell us about your favorite local restaurant! What are your best memories there and favorite menu items?