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Review: Chuy’s and Uncle Julio’s each deliver creative and ambitious takes on Tex-Mex

Uncle Julio’s Chocolate Piñata is dessert and entertainment in one

Watch as Yesenia Chinchilla makes Uncle Julio’s signature one-of-a-kind smashable dessert at their Durham location.
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Watch as Yesenia Chinchilla makes Uncle Julio’s signature one-of-a-kind smashable dessert at their Durham location.

In 2013, a brash newcomer named Chuy’s rode into town, and hung out a shingle at North Hills. Chuy’s was a newcomer in these parts, that is, but not in much of the rest of the country.

The first Chuy’s opened in 1982 in Austin, Texas, and since then more than 100 locations have opened all over the country. Known for its fresh take on Tex-Mex fare and its wildly eclectic decor (giving rise to the motto, “If you see one Chuy’s, you’ve seen one Chuy’s”), the restaurant quickly found a strong local following. A second Chuy’s opened in 2016 in Cary.

Late last year, another Texan — Dallas-based Uncle Julio’s — opened its doors at the Streets of Southpoint Mall in Durham. With just 35 locations in 10 states, mostly east of the Mississippi, Uncle Julio’s is a relative upstart on the national scene.

But its ambitious made-from-scratch menu and inviting atmosphere (including prime people-watching from a sidewalk patio) promises to give Chuy’s a run for its Tex-Mex money. Evidence that Uncle Julio’s is delivering on that promise is a second location slated to open July 30 at Crabtree Valley Mall.

That’s not to say that this town ain’t big enough for the both of them. Each has its own distinct personality, and clearly neither is having a hard time winning a fan base. But they share enough in common that, depending on your mood, it’s easy to imagine opting for either on a given night.

How to decide which of these contenders matches your current mood? A good old fashioned smackdown, of course.

Round 1: Atmosphere

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Chuy’s in Cary has an eclectic atmosphere with ’50s vintage chrome and Formica table settings, whimsical Picasso-inspired paintings, and a colorful tiled floor. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Chuy’s comes out swinging with a flurry of faux palm trees, ‘50s vintage chrome and Formica table settings, whimsical Picasso-inspired paintings and a ceiling covered in old hubcaps. And that’s just the Cary location. Elsewhere, your mileage may vary. The only feature all locations share in common is a recurring retro theme, including an Elvis altar (I’m guessing the founders were big fans).

Uncle Julio’s counters with a more upscale, but still casual, urban-rustic vibe. Massive iron chandeliers, adobe-look walls and paintings of toreadors and flamenco dancers add a Spanish accent, while a tortilla-making station and colorful produce displays near the open kitchen emphasize the restaurant’s made-from-scratch philosophy.

Round 1: A split decision, the choice depending on your mood and personal preference. Both are vibrant settings suitable for an enjoyable meal.

Round 2: Margaritas

Uncle Julio’s impresses with a move rarely seen in a Tex-Mex restaurant: margaritas that could pass muster at a craft cocktail bar. The selection is extensive and varied, scoring points with top-shelf variations on the classic rocks theme as well as razzle-dazzle drinks like the Platinum Swirl, a colorful frozen concoction crowned with a shot of 1800 Silver tequila in the inverted peel of half a lime.

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Uncle Julio’s impresses with a move rarely seen in a Tex-Mex restaurant: margaritas that could pass muster at a craft cocktail bar. The Platinum Swirl, a colorful frozen concoction crowned with a shot of 1800 Silver tequila in the inverted peel of half a lime. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Chuy’s displays versatile skills, too, with creative quenchers like the Texas Martini, a margarita variation served in a plastic cocktail shaker with a salt-rimmed martini glass and a couple of jalapeño-stuffed olives. Even the $5 house margarita is a decided notch above the Tex-Mex restaurant norm. But Chuy’s margaritas are outmatched by the stellar bar offering at Uncle Julio’s.

Round 2: Goes to Uncle Julio’s.

Round 3: Appetizers

Uncle Julio’s leads with complimentary warm house-fried chips and a distinctive roasted vegetable and chile salsa. The chips are addictive, but prove too fragile to hold up to the tableside guacamole. Uncle Julio’s recovers neatly from this stumble with a shareable starter of four oversize tamales filled with shredded chicken, steamed in corn husks and served with a creamy Hatch chile sauce.

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Chuy’s queso compuesto is a generous bowl of warm chile con queso topped with dollops of seasoned ground sirloin, guacamole, and pico de gallo. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Chuy’s shows that it’s not going to give up this round without a fight. It delivers a potent blow in the from of a complimentary “nacho car,” a create-your-own nacho bar served out of the trunk of a vintage car trunk weeknights from 4 p.m to 7 p.m. Next comes a one-two-three punch in the form of queso compuesto, a generous bowl of warm chile con queso topped with dollops of seasoned ground sirloin, guacamole and pico de gallo. Following up with a chicken tortilla soup spangled with kernels of charred corn that’s so good you wish you’d ordered a large bowl, Chuy’s comes on strong at the closing bell.

Round 3: A unanimous decision for Chuy’s.

Round 4: Entrees

Sensing it may be winning on points, Chuy’s quickly tries to take advantage with its signature Elvis green chile fried chicken. The breast meat is juicy, but the sauce overwhelms the potato chip crust, eliminating any crispness it may have contributed. Shaking off the misstep, Chuy’s recovers its footing with the #4 chile relleno and enchilada combo, with choice of fillings (cheese and shredded chicken, respectively, both landing solid blows). Its confidence regained, Chuy’s picks up the pace, sizzling with beef and chicken fajitas served with soft house-made flour tortillas.

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Uncle JulioÕs house specialty Lobster y Fajitas combo is served only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The combo parries adroitly with a broiled lobster tail, served alongside succulent chicken and skirt steak fajitas. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Not to be outdone, Uncle Julio’s brings out the big guns: its house specialty Lobster y Fajitas combo. Served only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the combo parries adroitly with a broiled lobster tail, served alongside succulent chicken and skirt steak fajitas. With its opponent rocked back on its heels, Uncle Julio’s moves in for the kill with a flurry of tacos on house-made tortillas. Carnitas with a spicy red chile sauce and seared rare ahi tuna with mango-jicama slaw both score points. Uncle Julio’s closes strong with exceptionally tender carne asada in a steak and enchilada dinner combo.

Round 4: Another win for Uncle Julio’s

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Uncle Julio’s trainer Yesenia Chinchilla makes the restaurant’s Chocolate Lover’s Pinata. Dessert and entertainment in one, this showstopper features a chocolate shell, suspended from a metal frame. Break the shell open with the provided wooden dowel, and a shower of chocolate empanada bites, miniature churros, and fresh strawberries come tumbling out. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Round 5: Dessert

Still reeling from the last round, Chuy’s makes a valiant effort at a comeback by returning to the basics: flan, tres leches cake and sopaipillas. Served with honey, the sopaipillas score a glancing blow.

But it’s no match for Uncle Julio’s Chocolate Lover’s Piñata. Dessert and entertainment in one, this showstopper features a chocolate shell, suspended from a metal frame, brought to your table on a large tray garnished with small dishes of warm Belgian chocolate sauce and dollops of whipped cream. Break the shell open with the provided wooden dowel, and a shower of chocolate empanada bites, miniature churros and fresh strawberries come tumbling out.

Round 5: It’s three rounds in a row for Uncle Julio’s.

Uncle Julio’s appears to the clear winner, though you might say it’s not a fair fight given the considerable price difference between the two restaurants. That Lobster y Fajitas combo at Uncle Julio’s will set you back $34.99, and you can tack on another $12.59 for each Platinum Swirl.

Given the quality of the food, the scratch preparation, and the high rent of a prime mall location, Uncle Julio’s is reasonably priced. (The Chocolate Lover’s Piñata is ample for four to share at $30.) But clearly, Chuy’s and Uncle Julio’s are targeting different market segments — fighting in different weight classes, you might say. Just check out the parking lot at either Chuy’s location, and it’s easy to see that plenty of judges (including, on occasion, yours truly) are happy to award the decision to Chuy’s.

Chuy’s

Two locations: 4020 Market at North Hills St., Raleigh; 1035 Parkside Main St., Cary

919-571-2489 (Raleigh); 919-388-7455 (Cary)

chuys.com

Uncle Julio’s

8030 Renaissance Parkway, Streets at Southpoint, Durham; 4325 Glenwood Ave., Crabtree Valley Mall, Raleigh (scheduled to open July 30)

984-329-2900 (Durham)

unclejulios.com

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