Remember when Chuy's was just that little Tex-Mex place on Barton Springs Road with hubcaps on the ceiling and Elvis on velvet? (You looked sharp in your Members Only jacket, by the way.) It was the place you took out-of-towners to show off Austin's goofy Zeitgeist.
That one good idea spawned a little empire. And now when people come in from Dallas or Houston or even Franklin, Tenn., you have to scramble to find another gastronomic mascot, because they all have a Chuy's of their own. Do we hold it against Chuy's for dating other cities? Maybe a little. But remember that all chains started as hometown restaurants somewhere.
Gloria's started in Dallas-Fort Worth, featuring an even split of Tex-Mex standards and dishes from El Salvador. Maggiano's Little Italy started in Chicago, featuring an even split of Italian standards and music from Frank Sinatra. Both opened up new places this year at the Domain, Northwest Austin's own pre-fab hometown.
Gloria's would fit right in at one of those all-inclusive resorts in Playa del Carmen, or on a cruise ship where the front wall folds open onto a sunny patio and the main room features tall ceilings seeded like clouds with outsized light sculptures. The tables are covered in patterned cloth, the chairs are padded leather and the back walls glow blue and green, alive with color-changing lights.
The restaurant is built for volume, easily absorbing a conference of Dell employees coming from the Westin hotel across the street on a Friday night. Other tables held families coming straight from the stores, with bags piled to one side, their owners wearing the glazed stares of the overstimulated. Sweet mojitos and margaritas are $4 during long happy hours, and the chips are free, brought in steel bowls with salsa and black bean dip. Most of the food is solid and practiced, with some regional character but not enough to offend the mainstream resort traveler.
As it is in a resort setting, our waiters kept up the smiles and easy familiarity as they reeled off their favorite dishes, with spot-on recommendations for grilled pork and Salvadoran-style steak. At lunch, a waiter answered my plea for heat with a chunky sauce of fiery roasted peppers to punch up a Tex-Mex chimichanga ($9.99), a fried burrito rolled with tender beef fajita meat and draped in orange queso.
Also in the style of resorts - the ones where the fish doesn't taste like it came from the ocean in front of you - came a rubbery ceviche trio ($11.99) with syrupy shrimp cocktail and chopped seafood drowning in citrus.
But Gloria's showed some skill on the grill with the Churrasco Tipico plate ($15.99) from the Salvadoran menu, with a Frisbee of marinated, juicy grilled sirloin served with oily chimichurri sauce and a sidecar of tangy fried plantains and grilled sausage with a dense, dry bite. Asado de Puerco Salvatex ($13.99) is a thin pork steak the size of a flattened football , grilled fork tender and not too dry, with light heat from ancho chiles. The plate's only drawback was a feeble chicken enchilada with sour cream sauce, a tentative hook on which to hang the 'tex' in 'Salvatex.'
Pupusas are one of Gloria's Latin American handshake dishes, a $2 get-to-know-me plate with a thick, stuffed corn tortilla and cabbage dusted with spice. We picked up big flavors from neither the pork nor cheese-stuffed versions. We just rolled them with the cabbage, added red tomato salsa and thought about better tacos. But if the pupusa's a dry handshake, tres leches cake is a dewy-eyed, caramel-drizzled wave goodbye.
Speaking of hand gestures, we had a good laugh reading on the Website about Gloria's dress code, 'strictly enforced after 6 p.m.' No T-shirts, no hats, no sneakers. No excessive skin exposure. In Austin. Hilarious. I was surrounded by violators on a weeknight, and when I asked, the hostess told me the code applies mostly to Saturday's after-hours salsa dancing.
We could all stand to dress better at restaurants (looking at you, flip-flop guy), but that scolding code in all-capital letters seems like a clueless affront to Austin's come-as-you-are sensibility, a weak link no chain can sustain for long.
3309 Esperanza Crossing, Suite 100, in the Domain. 833-6400, www.gloriasrestaurants.com.
Rating: 6.2 out of 10
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. On Saturdays from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., the bar stays open for salsa dancing.
Prices: Starters $2 (pupusas, tamales) to $14.99 (steak-and-chicken nachos). Soups and salads $3.99-$14.99. Main courses $10.99 (spinach enchiladas, grilled chicken breast) to $16.99 (sirloin steak and shrimp). Desserts $4.99. At lunch, most main courses are $9.99.
Payment: All major cards
Alcohol: Beer, wine and cocktails, including more than 30 premium tequilas and the drinks they spawn. A perfunctory wine list with about 17 by the bottle ($18-$35) and by the glass ($7-$10). Happy hour runs all day Sundays through Thursdays, until 7 p.m. Fridays, with $4 sangria, mojitos and house margaritas.
Wheelchair access: Yes
What the rating means: The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value.
Maggiano's Little Italy
You could fit Italy into Maggiano's Little Italy. At least the part that immigrated to America at the turn of the last century.
The Maggiano's at the Domain is big, befitting a chain with more than 40 locations in the Lower 48, plus one in Saudi Arabia. It's nice, too, the bandshell-sized rooms framed by deep brown moldings, the cream-colored walls adorned in black-and-white photos and cartoons, the expansive tables layered with both red-checked and white tablecloths. The bar floor is set with tiny porcelain tiles; the men's washroom sports chandeliers and tinted Varga prints.
For finish-out, it's rivaled at the Domain only by another high-end place with soft double-Gs: Joe Di Maggio's Italian Chophouse. Word came to us Tuesday that Joe DiMaggio's had just shut its doors, but Maggiano's is packing the house, a waiter told us. That same waiter said he had worked for Maggiano's in California, then signed on at this one after he moved to Austin - in part for the employee food discount. He's a fan.
The food is big, too, defined by two things. One is a pasta strategy called 'Today & Tomorrow.' Buy one pasta dish for $12.95 to eat at the restaurant - ravioli, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs and the like - and Maggiano's will box up another one for you to take home.
The other big food idea is that old mangia-fest known as 'Family Style.' Show up with four or more people and Maggiano's will send an endless parade of plates to your table. Two appetizers, two salads, two desserts and four main courses for $26.95 a head, more or less depending on the roster of dishes. The math works. On one visit, we spent $35 apiece to split five dishes. Going Family Style, we could have had twice as much food for less money, plus had two more people to annoy with our New Jersey standup routine.
Enough with the size thing. Let's talk about flatbread. Maggiano's does the smart thing with the specialty science of pizza, which is that it doesn't try to run a pizzeria, too. But the flatbread fills the need for crust, sauce and cheese with cracker-crisp bread the size of an oar head for $6.95, and our margherita with sausage was tangy, melty and aromatic with fennel seed.
For every time Frank sang 'Fly Me to the Moon' or 'Last Dance' or 'Luck Be a Lady,' something good hit the table. Fried calamari ($9.50), crisp and pliant with rings and tentacles and a tart lemon aioli. Veal Parmesan (three medium cutlets for $24.50) that cut easily with a fork in a straightforward marinara, served with one of the best restaurant sides I've had this year: thin stalks of broccolini with equal parts garlic, shaved thin with a toasty caramelized finish. 'Our Famous Rigatoni "D"' ($13.75), which brought together herbed chicken, fat tubes of al dente pasta, mushrooms and a sweet sauce that wasn't overpowering.
The pasta itself isn't made in-house, a waiter said, but it was cooked perfectly for a side dish of spaghetti and marinara ($3.95) and layered nicely with beef and sausage for a fat slice of lasagna that we heated in the oven at home, the 'Tomorrow' component of a 'Today & Tomorrow' dish.
The 'Today' part of that composition was a disappointing fettuccine Alfredo that hit all the wrong texture notes - dry, gummy, pasty - without the fat, creamy lusciousness that makes Alfredo worth being called hypertension on a plate.
The record skipped again with an indulgent lunch of beef medallions ($18.95 at lunch, $22.95 at dinner). For two puck-sized beef filets with mashed potatoes and sweet mushroom-balsamic cream sauce, the price was right, but the meat had an acrid, dirty-tasting char, and the potatoes were as stiff and dry as spackling.
At lunch, the dish was a long time coming, too long for a lunch hour with an appetizer, for which a manager came to apologize. That personal visit was no surprise. Service at Maggiano's was professional and accommodating, from the hostesses to the runners. They will box your leftovers with joy, as if they were your Aunt Marie sending something home to your mom.
You might leave with a bag full of pasta. You might leave with a sense that this is the upscale shopping center's answer to Olive Garden. You will definitely leave with a belly full of Francis Albert Sinatra.
Maggiano's Little Italy
10910 Domain Drive, Suite 100, in the Domain. 501-7870, www.maggianos.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Prices: Starters $4.95 (crispy onion strings) to $12.75 (crab cakes). Flatbreads $5.95-$6.95. Soups and salads $2.95 (cup of sausage-and-orzo soup) to $13.50 (salad with Italian meats). Pasta $12.95 (Italian standards like lasagna and ziti, with one dish to eat there and one to take home) to $19.95 (lobster carbonara). Main courses $14.75 (chicken Parmesan) to $39.95 (New York steak). At lunch, prices on some dishes are lower, and sandwiches are $8.95-$10.95. Desserts $2.75-$7.50. Multi-dish 'Family Style' dinners for parties of four or more are $19.50-$36.50 per person.
Payment: All major cards
Alcohol: Wine, beer and cocktails. More than 85 wines by the bottle ($24-$200) and 40 by the glass ($5.75-$11.75). More than 20 whites, 57 reds and a half-dozen sparklers.
Wheelchair access: Yes
What the ratings mean:
: Food, service, atmosphere and value suffer flaws on every level.
: Serious room for improvement, with a few bright spots.
: A good overall experience. Clear mission, solid execution.
: Excellent across the board. Perfect in some areas, with only a few small distractions.
: An extraordinary restaurant experience from start to finish.