Saturday, November 07, 2009

Zuzu's Peddles Great Mexican Food, and It Was Here All Along

I'm in the midst of my two-gig day, but I had to pop on during my break and rave about a restaurant that was a common haunt of mine during the '90s, until I thought it went away. Little did I know...

I should digress for a moment and point out that the northern leg of Interstate 635, known as the LBJ Freeway, seems to be a fairly solid dividing line for people who consider themselves either hardcore "urbanists" or "suburbanists." I know people in Dallas who rarely venture north of LBJ ("Why would I want to visit those cookie-cutter suburbs?"), and people in Plano or Frisco that never venture south of it ("Too much traffic! Too much crime!"). I go south of LBJ for church and gigs, but I do tend to be a "norther" most of the time, especially with all the cool New Urbanist developments popping up around here. And while some will even say that the suburbs have all the cool stuff these days, Old Urbanism scored some points with me this afternoon.

Back in the '90s, an up-and-coming chain started emerging in the DFW area. Its name is Zuzu Handmade Mexican Food, and it was like nothing I'd ever had before--a great middle ground between mass-produced Taco Bell/Bueno fare and pricier sit-down restaurants, and it predated the rise of "Fresh-Mex" places like Chipotle in the area by a number of years. I was particularly enamored with the chicken quesadillas, and the peach mango iced tea was to die for.

Zuzu exploded all over my neck of the woods in the next several years (well, OK, not exactly in Garland itself; we didn't get much actual retail here until Firewheel opened in '05). A west Richardson location served me on shopping errand days, while one in Plano was a favorite haunt on lunch breaks from my then-job on Saturdays (and they eventually opened a location within walking distance of said job; I was in quesadillla heaven!). I would sometimes eat at one in Carrollton on my way back from Denton. I was certainly a "regular" for a while.

But as often happens to restaurants that expand too quickly, contraction was to follow. The one by my job didn't last long at all, and was replaced by the still-going-strong Big Easy restaurant, forcing me back to west Plano for my Zuzu fix until that one also closed and became a Rockfish. The Carrollton location closed not too long before the opening of the Bush Turnpike rerouted me away from Trinity Mills Road. And the Richardson location, site of my first visit, also succumbed and was replaced with a Chinese place. As far as I knew, Zuzu was no more, and I could have sworn I'd read rumors of such in the restaurant columns of the Observer or the DMN Guide.

I was very happy to discover a location on MOPAC in Austin on my way to my sister's house, and I always made a mental note to stop there at some point, though it has yet to happen; on the way down there, I'm usually eating once I arrive at her house, and on my way back, I've usually just eaten. Still, I made a promise to myself to visit there eventually.

Fast forward to just a few hours ago. I was coming back from a gig in the Lakewood area of Dallas. Having driven to the gig down Garland Road (which, save for Casa Linda Plaza, is butt-ugly until you get to the Arboretum area), I decided to take a different route home and go straight up Abrams. The scenery was much better, and when I got to Mockingbird, I couldn't believe it--there, on the southeast corner, was a Zuzu! They hadn't left after all!

Needless to say, I stopped; I was looking for a place to eat anyway, and that certainly filled the bill. And after all those years, they didn't disappoint. Everything was just as I'd remembered it: The crispy chips with the delicious green salsa (they also have red), the rice with just a little bit of corn in it; the generous portion of chicken and cheese in the quesadillas. And I gulped down the peach-mango iced tea like there was no tomorrow; I'm surprised that I didn't have to stop at every gas station between there and home.

I told the guy behind the counter that it was my first visit since the suburban locations closed, and that everything was as good as it had been before. It's kind of funny that I never bothered Googling the chain to see that there were in fact a few locations left in the area (there's one in Addison as well), but I'm sure I'll make up for lost time in the weeks ahead.

It appears that the Zuzu "empire" has fractured into various franchises, so there's no common owner anymore, but the concept appears to be the same no matter where the restaurants are located. There's no website for the local edition, but the Austin stores have one, and the St. Louis ones have a good site as well.

So yes, this "norther" has a new reason to venture south of LBJ on occasion, or maybe even a new lunch spot after church.

(Bonus points if you can name the cultural reference in the title of this post; you may hear it a lot around a month from now.)

UPDATE: A week later, I was in the area of the Addison (Belt Line and Landmark) location and decided to give it a try as well. While it misses some of the funkiness of the Abrams location (the brick floor in the drink area with various people's names on the bricks, etc.), the food is just as good. It's owned by a different person than the Abrams one, and the setup is a bit different; chips aren't free, but the total bill is cheaper by about...the cost of an order of chips, so it all works out. While neither of these locations are exactly in my backyard, it's great to have them around.


Anonymous said...

zuzu abrams website;

Unknown said...

Hi Kev,
I opened and owned that Zuzu for 15 years (the current owner is financed by me still for the purchase)and actually laid the brick floor myself. Just thought you might like to know I live in Frisco now and am opening one here. We are picking the site now and I'll let you know where we end up. I miss the food too!! Thanks! Bonnie