Modern Bar Brings Tacos, Cocktails and a Cancun Vibe to Washington Avenue
Modern cantina El Venado opened with handcrafted cocktails and savory Mexican bites in June 2022. Owner Alexander Noons, previously of Pappasito’s, worked for almost a year to revamp the space, which was formerly Revolver. He is joined by chef Giyermo Miranda-Cardenas, previously of Fig and Olive. Matt Tanner, previously of Anvil Bar & Refuge alum and Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, consulted on the beverage program. El Venado means “deer” in Spanish, and Noons chose the name to represent how he wanted his bar to come across: with simple, natural offerings.
The patio of El Venado gave me Cancun vibes, from which I’d just returned. The colorful outdoor area is lined with large booths — perfect for group gatherings — and white umbrella-topped patio tables. In the evenings, the string lights that run across glow, helping you forget that you’re right off the Katy Freeway. This is a patio you’ll want to earmark for dining al fresco and generally hanging out during temperate weather.
Stepping through the antique door into the indoor restaurant and bar area, the first things you’ll likely notice are the rattan chandeliers hanging above the bar, and Mexican Talavera ceramic tile accents. After that, your eyes may be drawn to the beautiful portraits of women by Irving Herrera, a Oaxacan artist whom Noons discovered on a trip to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It is a very lively, yet intimate and inviting space.
Houston Food Finder was invited to try some of the Mexican street food classics, as well as mezcal and tequila cocktails. The food menu is concise but covers the bases. Starters, salads and sides include chips and salsa, guacamole, queso, street elote and ceviche. We started with the ceviche, made with “market fish” (tilapia the day we visited). The fish is cured in lime, tossed in pico de gallo, avocado and cucumber and then served alongside housemade chips. While the ceviche was excellent, the must-order side is the street elote, made with roasted corn, mayo, Mexican crema, lime, Tajin powder and cotija cheese finished with a sprinkle of chili powder. The result is a smoky, salty and sweet blend of flavors that is delectable.
The “meats” section is where the fun happens; sort of a choose your own adventure. Choose between eight protein bases (grilled chicken, chicken tinga, pork carnitas, chorizo, al pastor, bistek, fish and beef birria), and two vegan options (crispy cauliflower or smashed avocado) served as tacos, sopes, tostadas or nachos. For my adventure, I chose beef birria, chicken tinga and al pastor tacos. These are served with housemade corn tortillas, red radish, limes, onion, cilantro and house salsa. The birria of course comes with a side of consommé for dipping. The tacos are just how you want your street tacos to be, warm and savory with a little bit of heat and a little bit of crunch from the onions and radish. The beef birria was my favorite, the braised meat was very tender and the consommé was rich with aromatic spices. Weeknight specials include half-off tacos all day on Tuesday, steak night on Wednesday with a 12-ounce ribeye alongside grilled green onions, Latin-spiced potatoes and house salsa for $18.50 and reverse happy hour on Thursday.
While you could go for the food alone, you don’t want to miss out on the cocktails. Tanner’s drink menu includes a classic paloma, margarita and ranch water, as well as agave cocktails that take the classics up a notch. Examples include the Cucumber Fresco made with blanco tequila, lime, cucumber and mint that is easy and refreshing, the El Venado Old Fashioned made with anejo tequila, mezcal, angostura and cinnamon and the Mexican 75, a fun take on the French 75, made with blanco tequila, lemon, raspberries and sparkling wine. If you want something even more exciting, from the “inspired cocktails” list you can choose such offerings as the Ana Maria, made with gin, manzanilla sherry, grapefruit, lemon, black pepper and rosemary or the Fresa Picante Mule, made with vodka, ancho reyes liquor, strawberry, lime and topped with ginger beer. All the cocktails I tried were very well thought out, balanced in flavors, none too sweet or too boozy and were well presented.
El Venado is laid back and homey-yet-vibrant, with excellent drinks and comforting street food classics to soak it all up. Noons and chef Miranda-Cardenas are currently working on the fall menu, the perfect excuse to return.
El Venado is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m, Friday from 11 a.m. to 12 a.m., Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 12 a.m., and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Brunch is served Saturday and Sundays until 3 p.m.