When El Big Bad opened late last year, it had nearly every ingredient necessary for success, including a beautifully decorated space on a busy corner where plenty of foot traffic flowed by daily and a second-story patio unrivaled by any other restaurant downtown—a patio where I spent many nights post-college making poor decisions fueled by the ultra-strong margaritas served at Cabo, the previous tenant here at 419 Travis. El Big Bad had imported its popular infused tequila program from its predecessor, the now-closed El Gran Malo, as well as its talented bar staff, and transformed the old Cabo space into a unique, colorful, wholly Houston haunt. The one thing that was missing? The right food, which never quite caught on with diners in the restaurant's initial months.
El Big Bad
419 Travis St.
After parting ways with its opening chef, El Big Bad found its match in chef Jonathan Jones, who joined the team in May. The modern, globally-inspired Tex-Mex that Jones is known for—Peruvian ceviches with Gulf seafood, chicken wings coated in spicy Mexican hot sauce and dusted with cotija cheese, a Central American-style "hummus" made with pumpkin seeds—pairs with El Big Bad's anything-goes "gastrocantina" vibe the same way Angelina Jolie pairs with Brad Pitt.
Not to be hyperbolic or anything.
The menu at El Big Bad these days reads like a rendition of Jones's greatest hits from restaurants past. Here are the Jalisco wings Jones was rightfully famous for at El Xuco Xicana, the sikil pak (that Mayan pumpkin seed dip) that first debuted at Concepcion, the ceviches that—sadly—never quite fit in at the Monarch at Hotel Zaza, the hotel restaurant Jones was most recently the chef for a couple of years before defecting to El Big Bad. Here, too, are some new constructions: chorizo-stuffed empanadas; elotes topped with more of that salty cotija cheese and tangy Japanese mayonnaise; pork ribs in a sticky-smoky-spicy-sweet sauce that's maddening because you want to keep licking it off your fingers while you mouth slowly smolders from the heat.
The downtown lunch crowd should find plenty to enjoy from this menu, which also includes standards like salads, tacos, tortas, and enchiladas. There's even a burger. Granted, Jones's enchiladas are topped with fried chicken skin, like chicharrones de pollo, and his tortas include ingredients like peanut salsa (which is amazing, by the way), but nothing here is too outlandish—simply thoughtful and confidently different. Certainly, you have to be confident in order to charge Houstonians for chips and salsa: $3 per salsa, three for $8, or six for $15—ouch, but I can't complain about the salsas themselves, especially the fiery-sweet peach and habanero blend that was on last week's lunch menu. (I can, however, complain about the cold chips, which tasted stale. Jones, keep an eye on those chips!)
The fact that Jones seems to have found his perfect fit at El Big Bad—and vice versa—doesn't seem to be lost on the diners who've begun to pack the restaurant day and night. The addition of a lunchtime prix fixe menu during the week—three courses for $15—can't hurt. Last Friday evening, I was thrilled to walk past El Big Bad and see the place slammed. Months of worrying about whether not the little Shady Acres restaurant could make its concept work inside a cavernous, two-story space in the notoriously difficult downtown dining scene seem to have been rendered moot.
I'm glad, too, because as soon as the weather cools off I'll be on that patio overlooking Travis and Prairie, sipping as many vampiros and blueberry-jalapeño-cilantro margaritas as it takes to cancel out the Cabo margs of memory—and as many as it takes to cool the burn of those Jalisco hot wings and spicy, smoky, luscious little pork ribs.