By Colleen LaMay
Try to walk into Chuy’s Tex-Mex restaurant in Woodbridge without seeing something that puts a smile on your face. The Austin, Texas-based chain is an unexpected feast for the eyes, as well as for the stomach. Walls and ceilings are decorated with the same from-scratch flair that characterizes the food.
The Woodbridge restaurant, pronounced “Chewy’s,” opened in January at 2641 Prince William Parkway. It’s part of a chain, but each restaurant has its own personality, explained general manager Skylar Bell: “If you’ve seen one Chuy’s, you’ve seen one Chuy’s.”
The spinach-chicken enchiladas, made with green chiles, are available for only three weeks each year. The cost: A very reasonable $11.79. The chiles are harvested in Hatch, N.M., and quickly distributed to all the chain’s locations.
The menu describes the dish as “oven-roasted chicken, fresh spinach and jack cheese, rolled inside homemade corn tortillas topped with green chile cream sauce and fresh roasted green chilies. Served with green chile rice and refried beans.”
All of the food is made fresh and from scratch, including the tortillas. “We do not have anything in our freezer except for ice cream,” Bell said. The decor is a symbol of the fresh food. “It’s all real,” he said. “It matches the authenticity of what we’re doing.”
The restaurant is doing well and welcomes about 5,000 customers a week. “We’ve been very happy with traffic in that location,” Bell said. “It’s a visible corner” at Potomac Mills. The Woodbridge restaurant is the second Chuy’s in Northern Virginia. The first one opened in Fairfax in 2014. So far, the company has 80 restaurants, all of them in Texas and points east.
Why should you want to eat here? “It is authentic food, made from scratch, never frozen food,” Bell said. And the service is fun and friendly: “That is the key.” The food is Tex-Mex, a melting pot of tastes from the United States–New Mexico and Texas–and from Mexican border towns and the Rio Grande Valley, which straddles the two countries. Menu items include burritos, which the company’s website describes as “big as your face,” as well as enchiladas, soups and salads, appetizers, chile rellanos and “Elvis Green Chile Fried Chicken.”
Owners Mike Young and John Zapp opened the first Chuy’s in Austin, Texas, in 1982. The pair was short on money for fancy decor when they opened that first Chuy’s. One of the business partners picked up classically unclassy velvet pictures of Elvis Presley and Stevie Wonder from a roadside vendor and hung them in the restaurant, located in an abandoned barbecue joint. To this day, the company carries on that legacy by ensconcing Elvis in every restaurant, in some way.
At the Woodbridge restaurant, two velvet Elvises hang on a wall behind a bench that bears a striking resemblance to a church pew. On the facing wall is what appears to be an honest-to-goodness shrine of a golden Elvis head wearing a glowing halo and fake angel wings.
The velvet Elvis caught on very quickly with customers, and Chuy’s restaurants now celebrate Elvis’ birthday (January 8) with special events. “It became our patron saint,” Bell said of the Elvis installations.
To go along with the general homemade, authentic vibe of the restaurant, the “trees” in the midst of the dining area are artistic works made of scrap metal. Most of the signs are hand-painted. The wooden fish overhead are hand-carved and hand-painted, and there are 1,000 of them at each location.
“We call them our ‘Mil Pescado,’ which translates to “thousands of fish,” Holly Robbins, field marketing manager for Chuy’s, wrote in an email.
Colleen LaMay ([email protected]) worked for nearly 30 years for a daily newspaper in Boise, Idaho. She moved to Virginia in 2010 with her family.