Ula’s enters a crowded Tex-Mex terrain with confidence
What Tex-Mex restaurateurs in their right mind would deliberately start a business down the road from branches of El Tiempo Cantina and Molina’s Cantina and in the same neighborhood as outposts of Lupe Tortilla and Cyclone Anaya’s?
Meet Brady Bussey and Ulises Gonzales, partners in Ula’s Mexican Restaurant & Cantina, which opened days ago at 5555 Washington in the former Coppa Ristorante space. The partners, who opened the first Ula’s in Missouri City last September, welcome the competition (and being the competition).
“I invite it. It’s a challenge we’re going to face head on,” Bussey said. “It’s a blessing to be in an area that’s already proven to support this type of food.”
And food is precisely how the partners (who Bussey describes as “extremely driven, Type-A restaurant guys) plan to distinguish themselves in such notable Tex-Mex company. Ula’s menu might read familiar to Tex-Mex regulars. But Gonzales said one bite of the house grilled chicken, grilled skirt steak, or smoky pork ribs, and guests will taste something special. Ula’s prides itself on its fresh foods and flavors, he added.
“When you get here and try our food you’ll see how the flavors are really different,” he said. “I like to think we’re known for the taste of our food – rich and good-looking to the eye.”
Gonzalez talks about the salsa, the use of fresh chiles, his fondness for chipotle chile, the enchiladas. If he’s enthusiastic about the Ula’s menu, he can hardly be blamed. Some of his fondest memories revolve around his mother’s cooking and the culinary traditions of Chiapa de Corzo in Mexico where he was raised.
The menu includes campechana, tableside services of queso flameado and queso del mar (cheese and grilled shrimp), quesadillas, Mexican smoked ribs, and tableside guacamole fill out the starters menu. Nachos and burritos? Check. Fajitas? Covered. House specials include grilled chicken breast with Mexican sauce and melted cheese; grilled skirt steak with enchilada; carne asada; tacos al carbon, chile relleno; and chicken flautas. Specialty dishes: Vallarta mix (marinated beef, chicken and shrimp fajitas); char-grilled steak with grilled jumbo shrimp; chicken breast topped with grilled shrimp and a creamy sauce; and a shrimp/rib/and skirt steak platter. Seafood dishes include tilapia topped with grilled shrimp; grilled fish or grilled shrimp tacos; shrimp in Diablo sauce; and shrimp enchiladas.
Bussey and Gonzalez believe in their particular brand of Tex-Mex food and hospitality that they jumped at the chance to expand so soon after opening their first store. Their new location on Washington is a charming reimagining of the space that was Coppa and, before that, Catalan. The partners kept the Edison bulb chandeliers and made good use of the brick accents. Bright stucco walls were given added texture and planks of cedar and some distressed tin. Mexican colonial art, antique photos, ceramic vases, and crucifixes lend warmth and a sense of hominess to the large, high-ceilinged space.
At 220 seats including the bar and patio, the Washington Ula’s is only slighter bigger than the original 212-seat store. More Ula’s might be in the partners’ plan, but for now, Bussey said, the focus is on “getting these up and running and being confident with where we are.”
Still, Gonzales said he thinks Ula’s will make its mark in the crowded Tex-Mex dining scene with its food. “We make a big effort to use the freshest food,” he said. “But I want our guests to decide that, not us.”