Watching an old-line restaurant or bar move into a new space always makes this writer a bit nervous. There's an energy to a spot that's been held for years, something that goes beyond the memories of those who've partied, drunk and shaken a tail feather there. Between getting out the word that they've moved and inevitably higher rents that come with a more fashionable address, that sounds like an uphill battle, even for an established joint.
We're nervous, therefore for Juanita's. The restaurant, music venue and bar — which opened at their South Main Street location in 1986 — has pulled up stakes for new River Market digs at 614 President Clinton Ave.
Explaining the rationale behind the move, Juanita's general manager James Snyder told the Times: "We were at the end of our lease and couldn't come to terms with our landlord. We were looking at the cost of doing business on 13th Street versus the cost of doing business in the River Market, and moving made sense." Kinda hard to believe the they can't make it work cheaper on South Main than they can in the lovely, brick-lined, two-story location on President Clinton, but there it is.
The new space is quite a step up architecturally. Cozy and comfortable, the downstairs restaurant and bar area is accessed from Markham via a staircase that leads to sun-dappled patio. It has a French Quarter feel to it, with the main dining area dim, cool and well appointed (the music venue, which is bigger than the one at the old location, is upstairs).
From what we could tell, the grub at the new Juanita's is fundamentally the same as the grub at the old Juanita's. Which is to say, it's serviceable, delivered fast and friendly, but doesn't set our world on fire. While the Friday- and Saturday-night drunkfood-hungry clientele pool is surely exponentially higher on Prez Clinton than it was on South Main, our experience is that what makes or breaks restaurants in the River Market is drawing the sober-as-Mormons lunch crowd. Given the quality of nearby competition and the lackluster quality of our sample of their menu, that may be a tough draw.
On our first visit, we started things off with a bowl of Juanita's yellow chili con queso ($5.29), followed by the fish tacos ($7.99 for a single order, $8.99 for double). Our companion went with the San Antonio salad ($8.69).
The cheese dip was the highlight of the meal: a complicated mix with cilantro, chunky veggies and a nice bit of spice. Our enthusiasm was not so high for our entrees, however. The fish tacos were of the baked-fish variety. While we're more of a fan of the fried fish taco, we've had baked versions elsewhere that knocked our socks off. These didn't. Fairly bland when they should have been kickin' and lacking a flavorful sauce that could have made them pop, they were an out and out snooze. Ditto on our companion's salad. The menu had promised a "crisp flour tortilla shell," but that's not what we got. While the ingredients — lettuce, black beans, tomato, guacamole, salsa and fajita chicken — seemed nice and fresh, it could have all benefitted from a hit of some kind of dressing. As is, it was another fairly "meh" dish.
On a second trip, we weren't any more excited about our meal than the first go-round. The cheese dip was, again, the high point, but the Juanita burrito ($8.29) turned out to be a grease-dripping mess, more like an oversized taco than a burrito. The burger ($6.49, with four add-your-own toppings for $.50 each) was better, well-cooked and tender. On the downside, the side of fries was small.
While Juanita's has always been first and foremost about the music for us, watching restaurants come and go in the River Market over the past decade tells us it's going to have to step up its game in the kitchen if it hopes to do well. OK food isn't good enough in that location, especially at lunch. For the moment, there's a lot better grub within a short stroll from its door.
SAME OL': Juanita's continues to serve familiar dishes like fish tacos (above) and cheese dip (below) at its new location.