Deep in the Heart of Easton: Chuy's offers serious Tex-Mex in a stylish but frenetic atmosphere

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

Dining in Chuy's Tex-Mex on a loud and crowded evening - that would be almost every evening lately - is about as subtle an experience as watching someone fire up a jackhammer during a rave in a nightclub. If that doesn't terrify you, and if you enjoy spicy and cheesy Mexican-ish food, then you'll probably be a fan of the new Easton Gateway branch of this Texas-based operation.

Defying expectations culled from its chain identity, raucous atmosphere and swarming patrons, Chuy's provides a stylish setting, cordial service and genre eclipsing dishes prepared with fresh ingredients. Oh yeah, and a "nacho car."

The latter, half of a vintage-looking auto with shiny tailfins, contains a literal trunkload of nacho fixins - tender ground sirloin, tart and spicy salsa, rich queso dip, exemplary refried beans and thin tortilla chips - that are free during Chuy's popular happy hour (weekdays, 4-7 p.m.).

The nachomobile wackily juts out from a wall and joins an Elvis shrine, charming tilework, canine snapshots and colorful carved wooden fish in Chuy's bar. But happy hour, which includes discounts on fresh lime-enhanced margaritas (e.g. the large and lively $8.50 Texas Tini served with jalapeno-stuffed olives and presented in a plastic cocktail shaker), is observed in Chuy's two dining rooms as well.

Those playful, diner-esque chambers feature more delightful tilework, fairytale-style art, what looks like someone's family photographs, fake tropical trees, overhead hubcaps and a station where cooks tirelessly generate terrific tortillas. These handmade wraps help elevate Chuy's food over most Tex-Mex establishments.

They make a cameo appearance in the crisp strips atop the vibrant Tortilla Soup ($4.79). Starring a light homemade-tasting broth tickled with lime, the soup's other garnishes include corn, avocado, pulled chicken, tomatoes, cilantro and just enough cheese for ballast.

Although handmade corn tortillas aren't uncommon, finding handmade flour versions in a Columbus restaurant is about as rare as a 90-degree day in December. Roll up your sleeves, because Chuy's standout flour tortillas enrich dishes such as the hefty Tacos al Carbon with fajita-style fillings (try the smoky, seared steak strips, $10.69). As with most entrees, the plate partners are pinto beans (refried or soupy, zingy charros) and a choice of spiced rice (tomatoey but dry Mexican or tangy but dry green chili).

Blue tortillas sporting a pronounced toasted corn flavor bring a lot to the table with the Veggie Enchiladas ($9), one of Chuy's leanest entrees. A sauce option (I enjoyed the fiery but fruity New Mexico-style Hatch chile) plus good cheese and a stuffing of sauteed zucchini, yellow squash, spinach, chilies, onions and red peppers further guarantee this meatless meal is far from boring.

Because all enchiladas are fashioned with homemade tortillas and the menu calls enchiladas the "recommended house favorites," and because my tablemate bet I couldn't order them with a straight face (she won), I also tried the Chicka-Chicka Boom-Boom Enchiladas ($11). Dense and intense corn tortillas embracing juicy pulled chicken are swamped in a rich yet piquant and seriously hot cheese sauce about the color of pea soup, but about three times as thick. It's comfort food with a kick.

Because I'm shameless, I once parlayed that belly bomber into a combo platter ($10) with the Shrimp and Cheese Chile Relleno. Although much more cheese than shrimp, I still liked the crackly battered stuffed Anaheim chili pepper.

Speaking of shameless, the Elvis Green Chile Fried Chicken ($10.59) is a massive schnitzel caked in potato chips and topped with zesty chili sauce and unnecessary cheese. Yeah, it's ridiculous, but it's delicious and the golden-brown schnitzel is perfectly made. You'll dig it if you're the kind of person who laughs at a jackhammer brought to a rave.

Chuy's Tex Mex

4154 Seward St., Easton Gateway