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Steve Sharma and Lea McKinney of El Gran Malo

From the moment it opened a year ago, Heights gastrocantina El Gran Malo has been a hit with diners who enjoyed the restaurant's focused menu and myriad cocktail options. More than anything, the restaurant is known for its infused tequilas that run the gamut from simple fruits such as pineapple or strawberry to more savory applications like foraged mushrooms or pecan-cayenne. Owners Steve Sharma and Lea McKinney had experience running "rock and roll" bar dirt bar, but El Gran Malo is their first attempt running an establishment that serves food. Given the two star review from Chronicle critic Alison Cook and her ranking of EGM as 89 on her top 100 restaurants in Houston, looks like the food is a success, too.

Sharma and McKinney discuss why they decided to open El Gran Malo, the price of success, how they manage the restaurant's limited parking and whether they're pondering a second location.

Where did the idea came from? How did you get started? Sharma: Well, people travel places. People visit places all the time. You get different ideas of what could work in your city where you live just from that. It can grow from there. I'm from California. I've been here almost 10 years now, but I remember in my earlier drinking days a lot of places would have some different infused tequilas if they were a Mexican restaurant ... A lot of Mexican restaurants do some very, very simple infusions. You see around town, around here, something like jalapeno or pineapple. Usually, single ingredient, usually very, very simple and anywhere from one to four is the max that we saw. McKinney: And they add sugar to it.

Sharma: We wanted to go a more natural route. We planned on starting with 12 infusions. By the time we opened, we had 20; we were having so much fun with it. Now we're between 40 and 50 at any given time. Some of them are simple things like jalapeno or pineapple. Some of them are more complicated. One of the earliest "recipe" ones, that's what I call them when they have a lot of ingredients, is pecan-cayenne. It's really, really good. A lot of chefs like that one. It's a favorite of a lot of people. It's really more of a wintery one, so I expect to see it come back as the weather cools down. More of a savory rather than the lighter, brighter flavors, I guess.

We wanted to add a food component to a concept for awhile. We wanted to do this infused tequila. That kind of morphed into having a really good, unique drink program. The term "gastrocantina" just kind of made sense. Obviously, the gastropub was something that was popular a few years ago, and a lot of times those are the places we like to eat.

McKinney: I think another thing that was really important to us was that it was important to be collaborative and involve a lot of our friends in the industry from all over. We had people come over and do infusions. Like, we take stuff from Revival (Market) all the time and mess with it. You know, JJ (Monarch chef Jonathan Jones), Alvin (Schultz), just different people having a part of it. (Randy) Rucker going and foraging mushrooms and putting them in there or fresh juniper. Everybody kind of had a place there. That was important to us, too. We really think that the better one person does the better all of us do. We wanted to give it a family feel.

Were you surprised by how quickly people embraced it? Sharma: We definitely knew we had a good product. We knew people would at least give us a shot. We probably expected it to be busy with a slower buildup than what we got. We were very, very fortunate to have a lot of people come early. Fortunately, everybody seemed to like what we do. Not everybody, but most people, when they're coming in, they have a pretty good idea of what we do immediately. If they're looking for a Bud Light/Miller Lite, they realize right away that this isn't the place they're looking for.

The menu is pretty limited. Have you ever thought about adding fajitas or some of the more typical Tex-Mex items? Sharma: We will be adding more regular, daily specials in the future. The idea of adding fajitas: I think it's such a small place. With that location, the kitchen is very, very small. One of the ways to keep the food costs down and ensure you have a really fast kitchen is to have fewer items on the menu. We wanted to make sure, especially as we got really busy, that our food comes out as quickly as possible. Fajitas would take a lot of time on the griddle.

You have a very industry-heavy group of regulars. Is that something you set out to earn from the start, or did it just sort of happen? McKinney: A lot of them are our friends. Sharma: A lot of them are our friends. So we expected them. I think that's one of the reasons we feel we can take more chances with some of the stranger infusions we've done or with some of the things on the menu like the pork belly taco. That is a dish that's designed for the "Houston foodie." It's not necessarily an every day dish. We expected we would have a lot of chef, bartenders and industry clientelle, again, because they're our friends.

How have you managed the parking situation? How have people responded to some of the challenges of parking at the restaurant? Sharma: Inside the city, there's always going to be parking problems. There are some issues anytime you want to build a restaurant or a bar or a clothing store or whatever, especially if it's a popular place. Some of the things we've done, we obviously have enough parking in terms of the city to our CO. We also have rented some spaces at the gas station behind us. The valet is legally allowed, with their permit, to park cars in father away lots and the street. It's a complimentary valet, the guys work for tips and people should be nice, but they can come and give the car keys to the valet and just go have their meal and the car gets brought right back to them. Standard operating procedure for restaurants in the city. McKinney: I think that kind of unique, quirky, stand-alone places that's a big part of it. It's not in a strip center. It's not new construction. We just have to work with what we have.

Sharma: Because we're so busy, there's not much we can do about expanding our restaurant. If I could have it be bigger, if I could have a bigger lot, if I could have that solved I would. The nice thing is that it's not a neighborhood that has a problem with parking. There's not a lot of major issues. You can park a block or two away and walk if you don't feel like using the valet. We also have a lot in back that has several spaces if you feel like parking your car yourself.

Do you think there's going to be another one? Sharma: If we do another thing like El Gran Malo, it will be differnet. We'd probably go bigger, just because people seem to like us. They like our food and drinks. It makes sense to be a little larger and have more than the city required amount of parking: the amount of parking that we feel like would accommodate our guests the best. McKinney: The things that we hear from our guests complaint-wise that we would try to address. We have lots of ideas.

Where do you see yourself compared to other Mexican restaurants that are known for having great drinks like Cafe Adobe or Cyclone Anaya's? Sharma: A lot of these places do have great drinks and do have fajitas. McKinney: I like fajitas. Sharma: I like fajitas. We're just doing something different. McKinney: We still consider ourselves a bar. I realize that's a really weird thing to say. You are what your customers perceive you to be or you're an idiot. I appreciate the fact that 90% of the people that come in and eat. Sharma: Probably the biggest shocker from day one is, we knew we wanted to have great food, but we didn't know how much food we would sell and how much people would love the food. McKinney: We had no idea. Sharma: A lot of our friends keep teasing us, you thought you opened a bar, but you have a restaurant. McKinney: Which makes us "classier," I think. For me, that whole thing was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I've done a lot of weird stuff, but that's the hardest thing, for lots of reasons. It's very rewarding. Now, looking forward, I don't think either of us would ever do a place without food again. The food aspect really changes everything. Service-level, expectations from people, lots and lots and lots of thing.

Were you surprised when you showed up on Alison Cook's top 100? McKinney: Yes. Sharma: We thought we were opening a bar. We kind of went with the gastrocantina idea. I knew she liked the food. By the third time she came in, I happened to run the food out to her. We got to talking. She said, I know you know who I am. So, let's not pretend, but she's like, I've eaten here a few times so I don't feel bad that we're talking at this point. You guys have something special here.

I didn't expect to be on that list. I think it was for more traditional restaurants. I think it's a really good list, obviously cause we're on it. I think it's a good list because it does incorporate other places that aren't just fine dining places on there as well. McKinney: It meant so much. Sharma: Hubcap Grille is on there, and they're awesome. Some differnet kinds of quick service places are on there. It just really captures more of what Houston does. I wasn't expecting the list to be like that so I wasn't expecting to be on it.

Did that change things for you? Sharma: A little bit, yeah. We saw immediately people came in for brunch. McKinney: A lot of people in the neighborhood, too. It was a wonderful thing. Sharma: That article got us to a market that we weren't previously getting. McKinney: We were bonafide. It's something my grandparents saw.

What was the biggest difference between owning a restaurant and a bar? McKinney: Service, expectations and the different employees working in the kitchen. We weren't really familiar with how that's structured. The different hours and how that works has been interesting. Sharma: Specifically, at dirt bar, it's a rock and roll bar. Having a little bit of an attitude while being friendly is definitely a different style of service than you expect when you're being served food. We still want it to be fun with a good atmosphere, but a little more polished.

One other thing about running an establishment that has food is we've grown up a lot just as operators. Our establishment has grown a lot here. When we were so busy and not expecting to be quite so busy quite so fast, there were issues with service that took us awhile to address. There were issues with food coming out as fast as we wanted it to, because we didn't expect such an onslaught of guests. Now we're a much more fine-tuned, well-oiled machine that can handle it a lot better. That's probably the biggest different between day one and day 366.

Triniti's Greg Lowry designed the menu, but you don't have a chef running things day to day. Do you think you ever will? Sharma: As our organization grows, if we decide to open another one, if we decide to make awesome fajitas, who knows? McKinney: That would be awesome. We should have "the best fajitas ever." That could just be what they're called on the menu. And then that's it.

· El Gran Malo [Official Site]
· Good Times at El Gran Malo Bar and Tacqueria [29-95]
· Alison Cook's Top 100: No. 89: El Gran Malo [29-95]
· All One Year In On Eater Houston [-EHOU-]
Steve Sharma and Lea McKinney. [Photo courtesy of Lea McKinney]

El Gran Malo

2307 Ella Boulevard, Houston, TX 77007