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"They could turn it into a game, like Where's Waldo?" Ms. W suggests as she sips her margarita. "See how many monkeys you can find. Kids would love it!" We are discussing the monkey problem at Tony Vallone's new Mexican restaurant, Los Tonyos Cantina, which is located in the noisy, high-ceilinged Shepherd Drive space that Fox Diner last occupied.
Chango, which means "monkey" or "ape" in Spanish, was the name the legendary Houston restaurateur originally had in mind for his first Mexican eatery, but it turned out there were already Mexican restaurants of that name in other Texas cities. So, at the last minute, the name was changed to Los Tonyos. Which would have been fine -- if the entire restaurant weren't covered with monkeys.
"There are ten monkeys on the menu alone," observes Ms. W, a noted local wiseass. The ubiquitous trademark primate, who looks like Curious George in a sombrero, wouldn't be so bad on his own. But when you combine the cartoon monkey with the movie-theater starburst carpeting, the gaudy piñatas and the Hawaiian shirt uniforms of the waitstaff, you end up with a weird ambience -- sort of an adult Chuck E. Cheese's with tacos instead of pizza.
Ceviche tostadas: $7.95
Small guacamole: $4.95
Los Cabos combo: $10.95
Chicken enchiladas: $8.95
Chuletas verde: $14.95
Cabrito tacos: $9.95
But hey, the margaritas are strong, the chips are crunchy, and if monkeys and Hawaiian shirts aren't particularly evocative of Mexico, that's okay, because neither is the cooking. Los Tonyos is meant to be fun and healthy, not authentic.
On our first visit, we started with some unexciting ceviche-filled tortilla shells. Ms. W ordered a frozen margarita, and I asked for a shot of Hornitos with a sangrita, the traditional Mexican tequila chaser. The waitress said they didn't have "sangria" (the wine and fruit mixture), so I tried the bartender. I was impressed that the young crewcut knew what sangrita was and even offered to try to make some. The chaser, made with chiles, orange juice, lime juice and sometimes pomegranate juice, should be bright red and quite piquant. The bartender kindly brought me a shot of Bloody Mary mix with lime juice added. It's the thought that counts. Note to self: Better stick with the basics here.
I tried an enchilada plate. You can mix and match, so I got two different kinds. The chicken verde enchilada came with plain shredded chicken and a passable tomatillo sauce; the cheese enchilada came with melted cheddar and a red sauce that tasted like cream of tomato soup. The rice and beans were fine, but everything was unconnected. If you're used to an enchilada plate overflowing with sauce, topped with cheese and baked together in the classic Tex-Mex style, this one will disappoint you.
Los Tonyos serves its food on the same kind of oversize Fiestaware platters that they use at Pappasito's Cantina. But while Pappasito's fills the platter with rice and beans and lettuce to make the portions look huge, Los Tonyos arranges the items at some remove from one another on the brightly colored plate, making the dish look oddly incomplete.
Ms. W ordered a combination plate called Los Cabos, comprising a fish taco, a shrimp taco and an enchilada, with rice and beans on the side. The shrimp taco -- large tasty sautéed shrimp with lettuce and tomatoes served on a soft tortilla -- was simple, but with enough hot sauce you could make it interesting. The green enchilada was just like mine. And, for reasons that I couldn't put my finger on, the fish taco was bland and gloppy.
On my second visit, I had both the best and the worst things I've eaten at Los Tonyos. The best was the cabrito taco plate: two freshly made flour tortillas filled with stewed goat meat and served with guacamole and pico de gallo on the side. The tortillas were hot off the griddle, the meat was soft as butter and stewed in a sublime tomato and chile sauce, and the fresh salsa added a lovely bite. The guacamole was dominated by preserved avocado puree, but that's normal during the time of year when avocados are expensive.
My lunch partner got the sopes plate, so I traded her one cabrito taco for one of the round boats of tortilla dough. The dough is typically filled and fried fresh when you order it. Gorditas Aguascalientes on Bissonnet makes outstanding sopes, which they fill with beans and cheese. I had just had an order of sopesitas, or little sopes, stuffed with such upscale goodies as duck in mole and chicken in verde sauce, at Hugo's a few days before. I was quite impressed to see such an esoteric and authentic Mexican dish on Los Tonyos' lunch menu.
I wasn't nearly so impressed when I started eating it. The filling was simple refried beans and picadillo, with Mexican cheese and cilantro on top -- nothing wrong with that. But there was a horrible, watery taste to the whole thing. I sat there picking my sope apart trying to figure out where the water was coming from.
Eventually, I asked the waiter if the tortilla dough used to make the sope had been boiled or steamed rather than fried. He went to the kitchen, came back and said, "Yes, it's tortilla dough."