I hadn't heard so much buzz about a new restaurant in Knoxville for quite some time. So after giving the bees a couple of weeks to settle down, The Grub Spouse and I headed out to Chuy's, the Austin-based restaurant chain whose formula of funky decor and hearty Tex-Mex grub has finally made it to East Tennessee.
We signed up for a 45-minute wait upon our weeknight arrival, then decided to hang out with the overflow folk in the patio area. Those who can't wait to nosh can take chips and salsa outside with them to tide them over. Fortunately, our wait shrank to just 20 minutes, and soon, we were seated in Chuy's central dining room, underneath a couple of faux palm trees.
The decor is eclectic-funky, to be sure, with overtones of Southwest roadside diners and Elvis Presley accenting a brilliant background palette of yellows, blues and terra cottas. The smaller rear dining room is brightly festooned with colorful paintings, while the side dining room is dominated by a ceiling covered in shiny hubcaps.
The menu is not as extensive as ones found at most Mexican-food eateries. There are familiar appetizers like nachos, quesadillas, etc., and you can go green with the likes of taco, grilled chicken and Mexi-Cobb salads.
The lineup really starts to shine when you get into the meat of the menu, where Big as Yo' Face Burritos headline a selection that also includes enchiladas, tacos, fajitas and combination platters.
The House Specialties section features several kinds of chiles rellenos as well as Chuy's take on the chimichanga, the Chuychanga (they love the wordplay). I was seriously tempted to try the Elvis Green Chile Fried Chicken. Get this: A chicken breast breaded with Lay's chips, then deep-fried and covered in green chile sauce and cheddar cheese.
The Elvis theme also comes into play with the Elvis Presley Memorial Combo in the Combinations section. It includes three different enchiladas, a sirloin crispy taco and tostada chips in chile con queso.
I passed on both and went instead with another specialty, the steak burrito — a 12-inch tortilla stuffed with grilled steak and cheese and topped with Chuy's hatch green chile sauce. It comes with green chile rice and charro (pinto) beans.
The Spouse pored over a variety of enchilada options before deciding on the veggie enchiladas, filled with spinach, onions, zucchini, yellow squash, red bell peppers, serranos, roasted green chiles, corn and cheese. It's topped with ranchero sauce.
By the way, our server was awesome. Despite dealing with a packed house, she was on top of everything all meal long, in addition to being infectiously engaging and extremely knowledgeable and informative when it came to our menu choices.
She also warned me that the steak burrito was very spicy, and she wasn't kidding. The hatch sauce packed a major wallop but without discomfort. The steak was lean, tender and alive with smoky grilled goodness. Meanwhile, the green chile rice was a pleasantly unique variation, and although I'm not crazy about pintos, the charro beans were decent. The Spouse's enchiladas were full of distinctive blue-corn-tortilla flavor, and the veggie fest inside was enjoyable. The Spouse's refried bean and Mexican rice sides were typical but not bad.
We plowed through only half our hefty portions in order to save room for dessert, and I'm glad we did. I highly recommend the tres leches cake, which is served in a thick mixture of condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream swirled with caramel. Topped with strawberry slices, this treat vaulted to the upper strata of my restaurant-dessert faves.
I vow to return one day to try some of the Elvis fare, but for the time being I can say that The Grub Spouse and I left the building telling Chuy's, "Aww, thank you. ... Thank you very much."
Food: 4.5 stars (out of five)
Address: 9235 Kingston Pike
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Full bar service
Bottom Line: This new Tex-Mex restaurant fires on all cylinders with its funky-fresh approach to food, atmosphere and service.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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