Those of who you've placed The El Cantina Superior in your Houston restaurant death pool may want to reconsider. The new but often empty restaurant at the corner of Studewood and White Oak is getting a complete overhaul for 2015 from an unlikely team that has taken over the fraught Tex-Mex spot and they're rolling out the first of many changes this Friday.
Almost from the moment it opened this summer, The El Cantina was burdened with problems. The cavernous Tex-Mex spot in the Heights was the newest and most ambitious project to date from restaurateur Ken Bridge, he of Pink's Pizza and Lola and Shepherd Park Draught House and Witchcraft—all successful restaurants, but none of them quite as massive as The El Cantina.
Early reviews on sites like Yelp were scathing, as customers waited up to 90 minutes for a table and were often dissatisfied with the food, the drinks, the service, and basically all of the crucial elements that make up a dining experience. The El Cantina received a sour review from the Houston Press in July, and closed temporarily to address some utility issues in August. Many people thought it was gone for good. The El finally reopened its doors, but owner Ken Bridge knew his restaurant wouldn't last much longer without a serious intervention of some kind.
Enter Lee Ellis and Lance Fegen, men who would in any other circumstances be considered the competition. Ellis and Fegen own Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar, only a few blocks down Studewood from The El Cantina. And like Bridge, they've got plenty of other irons in the fire: Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette in River Oaks, BRC Gastropub off Washington Ave., Petite Sweets in Upper Kirby, and an upcoming fried chicken joint at Heights Blvd. and 6th St. that will open in January.
"Ken ate at Liberty all the time and we all ate Pink's Pizza," recalls Ellis. "We were all friends. I said, 'If we can help; we'll do it.'" For the last few weeks, that's just what Ellis and his team have been doing, starting with a brand new menu and eventually ending in a revamp of the dining room and large patio.
"I think so many things were wrong they just didn't know where to start to fix them," says Ellis of The El's myriad issues. "We didn't feel it was executed properly from the beginning." Originally, Bridge had only looked to Fegen to rewrite his menu, but Ellis and Fegen both knew that The El had bigger fish to fry if it was going to stay in business—and Bridge agreed. "The most important thing to me is service," says Ellis, "and I feel like that's where they've really missed the boat here."
Only a dozen of the original staff from The El remain, and those guys "have had their teeth kicked in" by the last few months, says Ellis. But, like Bridge, they're ready to turn over control of The El if it means their restaurant will stay in business. Ellis and Fegen have staffed up, hiring additional employees for both front- and back-of-house positions, and have been working on putting a firm leadership structure in place between testing new menu items. "There's nothing we're keeping," says Ellis of the old menu. "We're changing everything from the rice, the beans, all of it."
In the old menu's place, you'll find a very Lee Ellis and Lance Fegen version of Tex-Mex—something the duo had planned for a long time (in fact, they came very close to signing a lease on a Tex-Mex joint in West Ave. at one point) and something very necessary to stand out in a city filled with excellent Tex-Mex options at every price point.
Gone are the stale, bagged chips; in their place, The El will be frying its own to order and delivering them gratis to each table along with two salsas and a bean dip‚ all made in-house. But that's not all. "We're doing a campechana made with orange Fanta," Ellis begins, rattling off the new dishes. "A Nuevo Laredo poutine. Tortilla soup. A burrito bowl similar to what we do with our burger bowl. A whole section of burgers," including one with a griddled slice of queso fresco under a hunk of pork belly. Oh, and puffy tacos. "I hit Loma Linda once a week for puffy tacos," says Ellis, "cause they're few and a far between here."
There will even be chicken fried steak. Wait, what? Ellis laughs. "There's gonna be a couple of chicken fried steak," he elaborates. "One that's gonna be with enchilada gravy, one that's gonna be with queso and a fried egg." This isn't Mama Ninfa's Tex-Mex, but that could prove to be a very good thing for The El once the new menu launches this Friday.
Of course, Ellis knows it's going to take more than that to draw customers back who've been burned before. "I don't think it's going to be as easy as us coming in and sending out a press release," he says. "I think we're really going to have to show people."
The El Cantina Superior, 602 Studewood St., 832-203-5180, theelcantina.com