Chuy's was born in Austin, Texas, in 1982, and has adhered to its original concept — Tex-Mex food and fun — for the past 30 years. While memorabilia overload as interior design might seem a bit dated today, the principle of liveliness in casual dining apparently never gets old.
Occupying the former Surf's Up and Don Pablo's space off Nicholasville Road, Lexington's Chuy's, the first location of the chain in Central Kentucky, is a vast maze of several dining areas, including one with the signature hubcap ceiling.
La Cucaracha Bar looks onto the parking lot and is a great place to hang out if you get wait-listed — a short-lived but distinct possibility after 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday. All-you-can-eat chips and fresh salsa will keep you occupied, and the standard margaritas are deliciously limey but not very strong, so you won't get hammered before navigating your way to your table.
The menu is straightforward, using well-executed building blocks of salsas with beautiful doses of heat, roasted chicken and grilled beef, fresh tortillas, cheese, avocado and cilantro, and assembling them into myriad familiar combinations that are many cuts above your usual Mexican chain.
An appetizer plate will feed four for just less than $10, an inexpensive way to sample everything. The nachos are just nachos — not necessarily a bad thing — and the chipotle sauce on the flautas resembled marinara. However, the deluxe quesadillas with chicken, green chilies and cheese were great, and the creamy chile con queso was exceptionally spicy. The generous scoop of super-fresh guacamole sat on shredded lettuce topped with a dice of very ripe tomatoes, a mid-autumn rarity.
The tortilla soup is almost a meal in itself, with strips of chicken, avocado chunks and cheese that melts like fondue. Although the broth was slightly bland, cilantro and a squirt of lime brighten things up.
Five house specialties include rice — fragrant ruddy Mexican or spicier green chile — and a choice of beans, either standard frijoles or more interesting charros, which, with diced onions, doses of heat and minced cilantro, elevate the bar on soup beans.
Chuy's chiles rellenos with chicken use wonderfully fresh Anaheim peppers that lend heat to what's inside. The batter struck me as odd, though: It was deflated and almost crunchy, rather than fluffy and light.
Like Texas itself, all portions at Chuy's are grand. Did I mention they make "burritos as big as yo' face"? Anyway, beef fajitas for one with flash-grilled onions and green peppers, lettuce, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, cheese and handmade flour tortillas could serve two easily. Fajitas often depend on salt and aromatics for all their flavor, but at Chuy's the marinade, which includes beer, makes the meat the star.
Here is something else that is special at Chuy's: blue corn tortillas. Order enchiladas to sample them. The lightest version is "the Veggie," with spinach, zucchini, peppers and cheese, all slathered in a ranchero sauce that is a much richer, and better, version than the ubiquitous one resembling stewed tomatoes.
Save room for a big serving of tres leches cake, which is just as delicious the next day. Mexico's milky, caffeine-free cousin of tiramisu, topped with caramel sauce instead of a dusting of cocoa, is a sweet way to finish a meal.
But somehow, it was a moment of serendipitous perfection that made this particular evening sublime. After a few hours of loud rock 'n' roll and a lot of happy, happy atmosphere, magic appeared out of nowhere. One of the servers, who happens to be a professional opera singer, sang Happy Birthday in a beautiful tenor at a nearby table.
That was the best dessert ever.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.