Is Tex-Mex better in Texas? Yes. Is Javelina still the closest thing the Big Apple has to the comfort food of the Lone Star state, full of cheap ground beef and yellow cheese product? Probably. Is it worth a visit for their Prickly Pear Margarita or Mexican Martini, if nothing else? Absolutely.
The day Javelina opened, I received a frantic email from my best Texas friend with the press release followed by a few simple words expressing the sheer magnitude of her euphoria that Shiner Bock was finally on tap at what claimed to be an unabashedly Tex-Mex restaurant filling a void in New York City's dining scene:
"Literally crying tears of joy right now."
This is exactly why Javelina is a success. It seems as if every Texas transplant to the city has embraced the laid-back space that promised to pay homage to the many cities and specialties of the Tex-Mex tradition, and they've all descended upon Javelina with a friend by their side.
On my first dinner here with my Texas expert (already on her third or fourth visit, I've lost count), our waiter immediately asked if we wanted to start with any queso or margaritas, quickly setting the tone and guiding us through the rest of our meal. I was dutifully instructed to begin with the best queso on the menu, the Bob Armstrong, a traditional yellow queso from Matt's El Rancho in Austin with guacamole, ground beef, pico de gallo, and sour cream that must then be stirred. The texture was lighter and thinner than I expected from my previous experiences with Velveeta and Rotel, but was so addictively good that I had to break up my tortilla chips into small pieces to maximize the chip to queso ratio. I guess my only other option was to drink it like a bowl of soup, but I'm telling myself I'm better than that.
From the recommendation of our waiter, I also tried the Prickly Pear Margarita, a sweet and sour concoction that hits all the right notes of a drink meant to accompany comfort food, and the Mexican Martini, with reposado tequila cointreau, olive juice, and fresh lime.
The Brisket tacos, while certainly true to Tex-Mex cuisine and topped with a jalapeno gravy that added the ideal spice and a fresh complexity to the dish, unfortunately suffered from beef brisket that was tough and overcooked. The Fish tacos fared a bit better, with lightly grilled mahi mahi, house pickled jalapenos for a bit of sweetness, guacamole, and queso fresco for a balance of salt and creaminess. Perhaps the food is better experienced by tastebuds numbed by a few too many margaritas.
The popularity of the sparsely decorated space also contributes to another classic feature of the Tex-Mex experience: a powerfully loud dining room with service that tries to turn tables over at least 3 times every night. It might be hard on the ears, but the excitement and rush in the space seems to have everyone eager to come back for more.
Yes, there are still inevitable flaws in food that tries to replicate a particular cuisine too closely while taking measured, restrained risks in innovation, but if this is the best New York can do with Tex-Mex and authentically unauthentic Mexican food, I'm sold.