Big Tex Cantina, a Tex-Mex joint from Fox Brothers Barbecue et al, is officially opun fo’ bid’ness. Located just off the beaten path in downtown Decatur, you’ll find Big Tex’s in the vacant space that once housed Nathalie’s Fish House.
Opened nearly a year to the day after the dearly departed said adios, Big Tex is a straight up So-Tex watering hole that nudges the harshed upon stepchild of Mexican cuisine. Regardless of the ultimate success or failure of such an endeavor, you can’t say Big Tex, for better or worse, is not trying to do something a little different with the portmantologism of Texan Mexican grub.
A typical plate of Tex-Mex is like a fortress of food. In such a case, a plate covered by a castle of tortillas, cheese, meat (and sometimes gravy), and buttressed with some rice and frijoles refritos, will taunt you. “Eat me … break down my caloric induced walls and best me … I dare you.” That’s not what you get at Big Tex.
Mounds of nachos have gone the way of Texas poutine. Those typical sides of frijoles and rice have been replaced with mashed taters and roasted cream corn. And though you’ll find tacos on the menu, few ingredients are indigenous to the cuisine. On some level, this seasonal menu is an attempt at updating Tex-Mex, something in short supply ‘round these parts.
I’m in no way claiming that Big Tex is leading the continental charge in this endeavor, but I am saying that it may be one of the more accessible examples of Tex-Mex evolution here in Atlanta. At the same time, there are dishes entirely outside of the Tex-Mex ballpark, so it’s not an entirely unified concept.
Take for example the handful of entrées. Coming in between $11-$14 (incl. two sides), you not only have enchiladas (one is brisket), but you also find chicken fried steak/chicken. It’s easy to spot the Tex-Mex in the former, but latter hints in the optional queso topping. The tacos ($2.95per) run from the traditional (ground meat) to the risqué (chopped brisket or fried avocado) and the off the map burgers come in at around $9-$10. Then there are the apps, the salads, and a few desserts to tickle your sweet tooth.
For all its appreciated playfulness, the menu might also be Big Tex’s bane. I was pleased that they didn’t try and get bat shit crazy with the selection; but, things like salads and burgers undermine the cantina ethos. It’s also slightly annoying that there appears to be haphazard pricing which is not inline with the food costs.
Before I forget, for those of you who dig long lists of things you probably can’t differentiate without a chart on hand (also known as the chili’s patron), they do have roughly 60 beers and a cornucopia alcoholic libations.
As for the food on delivery, I think we saved the best for first. In a post a few weeks back, I called poutine the Québécois answer to the nacho. A dish almost entirely absent in Atlanta, Big Tex offers up the Texas rebuttal to Québéc ($5/half). Their poutine is Tex-Mexified with a red chili gravy and lots of melted cheese. It’s the quintessential example of moving the Tex-Mex needle; and, even against my experience with it in Dallas, I can’t complain. The cheese totally carried the dish and the red chili gravy, while not demonstrative, fit in texturally.
Entrées included a trio of tacos ($11) for me and a sandwich across from me. The three tacos went down without a fuss, but but’s about all. The anticipated fried avocado was firm and the chipotle cream was readily discernable, but bites were reluctantly uneventful. The chipotle cream made an appearance in name and texture only, and the pico was hidden on all fronts. The other deuce de tacos suffered from similar characteristics and the side of red chili didn’t hold up as well without the cheese to mask it.
As for the sandwich, my brief encounter left me neither impressed nor depressed. Joined by the visually striking but totally burnt roasted cream corn, the chicken fried chicken included housemade mayo [which is like saying the housemade scrambled egg], the lettuce and t, and the pickle put this squarely in the “tastes just like a fried chicken sandwich” station. In the absence of gravy, it isn’t really chicken fried chicken anyway. On the plus side, it was big, the chicken was fried perfectly and the Texas toast held together fine. I think some additional depth to the brine (peppercorns for example) could really take what was a high quality piece of protein and turn this into a better than average sandwich.
Stomach space prevented the consumption of a dessert, but assuming that Big Tex uses the same pastry chef that they do at Fox Bros, there is some promise here. For example, that part of the menu certainly reads well (Dr. Pepper chocolate cake).
As for the décor, it is that predictable cantina cliché of signage + Texas accoutrement and little of the assembly elicited any sort of opinion either negative or positive. There are a good number of tables, very usable bar, and an area to get your fun on (these guys do have a playful and humorous side).
Service was polite, albeit incompetent and presumptuous. Our server mixed up part of the order and then decided for us that it shouldn’t be remedied. Let’s not be hypersensitive as the faux pas was negligible if not understandable, but she should have fixed it.
True Tex-Mex is embodied by cheesy chili meaty; and, save for a couple of dishes, that’s not what we have here. It’s more like comfort food meets Tex-Mex. The conceptual push to be a successful cantina (which they have all the makings for) seems in direct opposition to their playful attempt at serving what they do. That stuff is not cantina food nor a riff on it.
Against the backdrop of a cantina concept, one can’t help but wonder if Big Tex’s best chance to make a true dent is in the Leon’s meets the Independent arena. AKA some place with food that isn’t total crap (Leon’s) but is probably a lot of fun to hang out in (the Independent).
Though I can’t recommend that those of you food commuters drop, stop, and roll your way to Big Tex’s, I can say if you’re in the area, don’t feel bad if you saunter through the door. There was no single culinary failure, but also no true blue ribbon. Nothing popped and little of it, save the Texas poutine, evoked this playful relationship with Tex-Mex food I expected. The ingredients utilized are certainly a good foundation, and with some real elbow grease and a smoothing out of the edges, Big Tex Cantina will be just fine.
Tip: That spot just happens to face out onto Ponce De Leon Pl, so make sure you turn the corner when looking for it.