Tio Carlos Mexican Latin Grill, 4843 Colleyville Blvd, Ste 330, Colleyville. 682-325-4397. 11am-10pm daily.
There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, when the very idea of driving up to Colleyville to eat a meal would have seemed like punishment for some unspeakable crime. If you didn’t live in one of the adjacent suburbs, the northeast borough was a long drive from anywhere. On a weekday after work, the slog from Sundance Square runs the better part of an hour. When there’s great food on the other end, a drive like that isn’t too much to ask, but it has been only in the last few years that the gastronomic needle has started to move in the right direction — any town that boasts a Whole Foods Market can afford to support a few decent restaurants.
“Decent” is a good word to describe Tio Carlos Mexican Latin Grill, and that’s even after deducting points for the drive. Located just down the strip from the aforementioned Whole Foods, Tio Carlos is doing a brisk neighborhood business serving accessible standards from the Mexican playbook, with an eye toward the greater Latin world. The Colleyville location, open since January, is the second for the Las Colinas-based eatery, whose home location has been building a loyal following for years.
On a recent evening, my guests and I converged on the Colleyville spot and were whisked into the dining room by the friendly staff. The open, contemporary-looking area was decked in cheerful pastels, and the half-capacity crowd was enough to give the place a low buzz. We requested a table by the bank of interior windows with a view of the gleaming stainless steel kitchen.
The wait staff was relaxed and casual, pushing drinks (but not too hard) and making recommendations when asked. Tio Carlos himself, Carlos Benitez, held sway over all, visiting tables and refilling iced tea. From the top down, it was evident that management and staff take pride in their operation. The place was impeccably clean.
Some area restaurants serving “authentic” Mex-Mex or Latin American cuisine refuse on principle to serve North Texas diners a basket of chips and salsa. I can’t prove that’s why some of these places go under, but I know there are folks around who don’t appreciate it. Tio Carlos doesn’t make this mistake, but there seems to be more than just a callous business calculation at work here. Instead, the menu seems to embrace Tex-Mex dishes as part of a larger continuum of Latin American cuisine. The result is that you can get something familiar or try something new, as you like. The large menu roams freely over terrain from California to Cuba to Tierra del Fuego, with plenty of time spent in the Lone Star State.
We were into our second basket of hot tortilla chips served with chunky tomato salsa when our guacamole salad arrived. The kitchen didn’t screw around with this classic — the simple blend of tomatoes, onions, and lime uice allowed the buttery smash of ripe avocados to assert itself with clarity.
My guest ordered a brisket quesadilla, a plausible option for someone on one of those trendy diets where most of your calories come from fat. Served with guac and sour cream, there was little danger of being knocked out of ketosis. The brisket was tender, with a smoky twang that gave the crusty quesadilla a bit of a Texas accent.
Another guest enjoyed the Mexican classic carne asada, a tender, marinated skirt steak served on a bed of rice. The steak was juicy with a caramel sear that would have made any fajita jealous.
I dug into the camarones al mojo de ajo, a brochette of plump Gulf prawns served with a baptismal of buttery garlic sauce. With black bean soup and white rice, it was a take on a Havana dish that seemed perfectly at home among the other regional favorites.
It turns out that nearly everything on the menu is made in-house. The notable exceptions are the tortillas (though we were told a tortilla station may be in the works) and the tres leches cake. Homemade desserts seemed a fine way to cap the evening, so we tried the churros — long, crispy fried pastries sprinkled with cinnamon. We also tried the sopapillas — soft, puffy fried pastries sprinkled with cinnamon. It’s hard to mess up fried dough, but better than either of these confections was the flan, a delicate, eggy custard with a burnt sugar caramel sauce like liquid gold.
I still don’t think I’d be inclined to drive out of my way to dine in Colleyville on my own recognizance, but the idea of doing so no longer feels like community service. Tio Carlos is the kind of solid place that could even make it enjoyable.
Tio Carlos Mexican Latin Grill
Guacamole salad (large) $8
Carne asada $15
Brisket quesadillas $13
Shrimp w/garlic sauce $16