Austin à la Eastside

Z'Tejas has come a long way from its funky origins.

Z’TEJAS SOUTHWESTERN GRILL 535 Bellevue Square, 425-467-5911 lunch and dinner daily happy hour 3:30-6:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.

It was only 8 on our night out in Bellevue, and already things were looking grim. Locating the entrance to Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill was becoming an expedition, involving a trek through a mall, up two flights of stairs, through a gargantuan parking garage, and finally—choking on exhaust fumes and badly needing a margarita—a leap over the 4-foot wall that separates cars from diners and through the inauspiciously placed front door.

This was hardly what I had expected from my hometown restaurant. For me, Z’Tejas will always be an unassuming little house in Austin, Texas, where a flight of creaky wooden stairs lit by tiny electric candles leads into a small room with hardwood floors and simple wooden tables. But since I left, Z’Tejas has grown up, expanding from a single location to 13 and morphing from a quaint neighborhood spot into a chain of carbon-copy restaurants in places like Columbia, Md.; Tempe, Ariz.; and Salt Lake City.

The old less-is-more aesthetic doesn’t really translate in the burbs, and, true to form, the Bellevue Z’Tejas hews to the notion that more is better. The place screams “Experience” from the moment you walk in the door. It’s a cavernous, cowskin-covered chamber with an over-the-top, totally-Tay-has vibe. Children (every table seemed to include at least eight) scamper and squeal, while Billy Joel and Blues Traveler thunder above the din. (If the interior puts you off, you can always choose a view: parking lot or construction zone.)

But more has changed about Z’Tejas than its facade. The food, too, has been tamed and suburbanized, offering all the accoutrements of pricey Mexican fusion (one appetizer featured no fewer than three sauces) but none of the complexity. Instead, Z’Tejas relies on one secret ingredient to give its sauces a kick. MSG? Nope—sugar. The salsa ($2.95, free refills) and roasted tomato sauce that dressed a quartet of bland, uniformly textured crawfish-crab cakes ($8.25) bore the unmistakably sweet tang of ketchup, and the margaritas (which include a $12 red-white-and-blue patriotic model) were a diabetic’s nightmare. (The tequila list, however, is impressive: nearly two dozen varieties, ranging from $6.25 to $21).

The crisp crawfish cakes, so perfectly round they appeared to have been made by a machine, weren’t the only disappointing rendition of familiar favorites. A plate of wild mushroom enchiladas ($8.95), which I remembered fondly for their generous chunks of mushroom, mysterious, smoky dark chile sauce, and zippy avocado salsa, came topped with a half-inch-thick glob of glutinous cheese, smothered in a cream-based sauce, and surrounded by salty “Tejas” rice and undercooked black beans that seemed to have been an afterthought. A roasted chicken chile relleno (which, like the salsa, bore an unnecessary “spicy” warning; $9.95) performed better, though its innards did taste oddly like a honey barbecue sandwich. The fruit-and-nut- flecked filling was a welcome alternative to the mound of Monterey Jack that often fills chiles rellenos, but a sweet roasted-tomato cream sauce drowned out the green chile mole that was hiding somewhere underneath.

Z’Tejas does excel, as its name suggests, on the grill. A sextet of grilled shrimp tostadas ($8.95) was a flawless combination of tastes and textures, the shrimp still juicy and delicately seared and the crunchy tostadas just greasy and crisp enough. A drop of spicy chipotle sauce and a dab of guacamole were offset by a light, cooling jicama-and-radish salad.

Likewise, the seared ahi tuna that dressed up an otherwise drab green salad ($8.95) was lovely: seared black on the outside but raw pink on the inside (as our helpful waiter warned me, “You might not like it, because it’s raw, you know.”) But the salad, a big pile of lettuce and a few chunks of tomatoes drizzled with a wasabi sauce and sprinkled with fried wasabi-coated capers, was insubstantial and left me hungry.

When sugar wasn’t playing the starring role, salt stood in. A grilled ancho pork loin ($14.95)—resting on a gratuitous mountain of salty garlic mashed potatoes—came topped with a greasy lace of wilted, fried sweet potato shreds. The whole mess swam in a pool of rosemary demi-glace so salty that it nearly drowned out the rosemary flavor and the ancho rub applied to the tenderloin. The total effect was addictive, if a bit dehydrating.

Z’Tejas isn’t bad. But it isn’t great, either, and with such a promising menu, it should be. I’d even go back, if only to try intriguing menu items like the crab-stuffed shrimp with blackberry-wasabi sauce and the seared catfish tacos. Then again, perhaps this is what Bellevue folks want: Simple, uncomplicated flavors, three kinds—salty, fatty, and sweet. If so, they’ve found their bliss.