APRIL 19, 2013
Twenty years ago, Berryhill Tamales opened in River Oaks to bring back the recipes made famous by Walter Berryhill from the 1920s to the 1960s. Ten years ago, Berryhill Tamales, which had become known for its fish tacos, changed its name to Berryhill Baja Grill.In light of July’s news that Maggie Rita’s would be replacing three Ninfa’s, it seemed prudent to check in with another, beloved Mexican food institution to see how it is responding to the changes in the market. Berryhill CEO Jeff Anon came to the company as an investor in 1994 before buying the company outright in 1995. Now the company has grown to 11 locations in Houston, a location in Austin and three in Mexico. They’re even opening a food truck that will appear at polo matches and other spots around town.
Anon spoke to Eater about Berryhill’s history, how it diffentiates itself in the crowded market for Mexican food and how ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons got Mick Jagger hooked on Berryhill’s tamales.
Talk a little about Berryhill’s history. Walter Berryhill sold tamales from a pushcart in Houston from the 1920s to the mid 1960s. He and his wife would make 200 dozen tamales every week. When they sold the 200 dozen tamales that was their week. He retired in the mid sixties, and an attorney here in town was a tamale afficianado that loved the tamales ended up buying the name, the cart
and the recipe for $200. … Basically, sat on the recipe and in the early 90s he met one of the partners of Texas Tamale. They met at a party and the attorney said “I’ve got Walter Berryhill’s recipe,” and the guy said “Well, I’ve been looking for you for 20 years.” They formed a partnership and opened up our original location on Revere. It’s a 1200sq ft restaurant with 22 seats. Just a shoebox sized restaurant.
Interestingly enough, Berryhill hadn’t sold a tamale since the 60s. They put a two column inch ad in the paper in 1993 when they opened that said “Walter Berryhill tamales are back.” They had over 300 calls the first day.
Torchy’s has been criticized for not making their own tortillas. Does Berryhill? We make our own flour tortillas. We do not make our own corn. We just don’t have the room in our kitchens. We have a local company make them for us, and they deliver them fresh everyday. It’s basically as if we make them.
But you make almost everything else in house? Everything we do here is homemade on the premises. Our salsas are made daily. Our soups are made from scratch. Our desserts are made daily. We bake them on the premises: our cookies, our tres leches. We get produce delivered everyday. The only downside to doing everything made fresh everyday is you’ll find a little bitty variance between stores. Even the same store you’ll find a little variance week to week by not buying things in bulk.
Our queso: we put some wine in there, put some pico in there. Really kick it up a little bit. We have this cheese made specially for us. It’s got a little spice to it. It’s got a really good fat content, butter content. It has that good melting quality to it. It’s tough to find a cheese like that; that melts well and doesn’t coagulate.
All of our soups are made from scratch. We like to consider ourselves a quick casual restaurant with five star dining and five star food. It’s an interesting combination. Very few quick-casual places where you can get everything made from scratch, everything homemade. I think that’s one of the things that sets us apart.
Talk about the new hot dog: It’s not on the menu yet. We’re planning to use the Slow Dough, split top, New England style bun. It really makes the dog. We’re using a Nathan’s hot dog. It’s a bacon wrapped, street-style Mexican hot dog with chopped tomatoes, grilled onions. I think our hamburger is as good as any burger in town. It’s way up there as far as a damn good hamburger.
Houston is burger obsessed. There’s a lot of competition. Why are you making a burger?We’ve had it for awhile. I’m not trying to compete with “the better burger business.” We get customers that eat here every single day. I wanted to add a little bit to the menu that sometimes you come in and you’re not in the mood for a taco. I wanted to do our better version of a burger. A little Mexican spin to it with some pepper, a jalapeno cheese bread. Just a little something different. Not to say “Hey, I want to go compete with Five Guys” or any of those guys. That’s a different business. I just wanted to add something a little special on the menu.
How do you see Berryhill relative to other Mexican restaurants in town? I think all Mexican restaurants are competition for us. We try to say we’re not Tex-Mex. We’re Baja. Supposedly, Texas Monthly said we were the fish taco in Texas back in the early nineties. We got requests to do burritos. I don’t want to put anything on the menu that’s not different. That I don’t consider to be the best.
I went and I tried all the burrito places. I’m not throwing stones at them, but my personal opinion is they all tasted the same to me. When you take a big flour tortilla and you put all the stuff they put in there. If I blindfolded you, you’d have a hard time telling me if that’s chicken, beef or pork. They all have pretty much the same flavor profile. In my mind, I don’t want to put the same thing out for my customers. We do a wet burrito. We put sauce on it, and it’s more of a center of the plate type item than something with tinfoil that you’re gonna grab and go and eat on the way.
Why did you add a fried avocado taco? We get a lot of vegetarian requests.
Let’s work on the avocado. We do a tempura battered avocado. We do a creamy jalapeno sauce on top with some pico and a little bit of cilantro. We try and make sure it’s not that babyfood consistency when you bite into it.
Do you have a perception that people have forgotten about Berryhill?
We’ve been blessed. Our sales have increased every year. Even our Post Oak location is going on 17 years. We haven’t had a down year.
What’s your sense of where Houstonians are in terms of what kind of Mexican food they want to eat? I think they’re looking for healthier. They are getting away from that plate of enchiladas and a plate of refried beans. Everybody wants to eat healthier these days. They want to eat fresher. All of the stuff we do we don’t use any lard. I don’t know of anyone else who doesn’t use lard in their tamales. We use olive oil. You go eat a plate of refried beans with enchiladas and you’ve got to take a nap afterwards. I think people are getting away from that. I think palates are a lot more sophisticated than they were. I really do.
To me, the greatest testament I think to our food is the story of our franchisee in Mexico. I got a call “You need to come back to the restaurant to meet this guy. He seems like a serious potential.” I go meet the guy. He tells me that he stumbled in while his wife was at a salon. He says “I’m from Mexico, and this is the best Mexican food I’ve ever had. I want to take you to Mexico.” Ends up he was the Outback Steakhouse franchisee for Mexico, the Bubba Gump’s franchisee for Mexico. If you go to the Cancun airport, he owns everything you put in your mouth from TGI Friday’s to Baskin Robbins. He’s opened up 3 locations in Mexico. When did he open the first one? Seven years ago. To me, it’s a testament to our food. Taking American Mexican food to Mexico. They’re doing really well. Love to tell that story.
Who do you benchmark against? I consider places like Hugo’s that takes it to another level. That’s more of a fine dining spin on it. Those are the type of people that, in my mind, I want to compete with. I don’t want to really compete with the typical Tex-Mex places. What about Pappasito’s? Look, Pappasito’s, in this industry, they’re the top. Their food is good. The quality is good. Their service is good. All their concepts do a great job. You can’t beat that. I want to take it to another level. They’re a little more traditional Mexican than we are. We want to put a different spin on it. You come in here you say “I’ve never had that flavor profile anywhere else.” That’s what we want.
How did Mick Jagger become a Berryhill fan? Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top is a big fan of Berryhill. When the Super Bowl was here the Stones were playing. The Stones were having a catered party at the Four Seasons. Billy Gibbons show up with a bunch of our tamales. Jagger has never eaten a tamale, never seen a tamale in his life. Supposedly he ate all of them. At the end of that tour, they were closing it out with a show at the MGM in Las Vegas. Billy Gibbons calls me out of the blue on a Friday and says, I showed up to surprise Mick Jagger. Jaggers says, You son of a bitch, if I had known you were coming, I’d have made you bring me some of those tamales. Gibbons says is there anyway you could fedex some tamales to me? We did. Now their road manager calls when they’re in the states, and we send them tamales.