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Don't Mess With Tex-Mex

Los Tios attempts a little modernizing, to the chagrin of old-timers

There is a table in front of the host's stand at the Los Tios Mexican Restaurant on Beechnut on which several dinners are displayed. A sign identifies them as the "Manager's Specials." As many times as I've eaten at this location of the 35-year-old Tex-Mex chain, I've never tried any of the new-fangled specialties. But tonight's the night, thanks to my dining companions.

Instead of her regular combination plate, one of my tablemates tries the stuffed chicken breast, which is filled with spinach and cheese, then mesquite grilled. It comes with some sort of cream sauce with chunks of pepper in it. The chicken is moist and the resinous taste of mesquite is sharp. But the stuffing is tasteless and the sauce is bland. It's the kind of edible but innocuous meal you might expect to find at any number of lowbrow Southwestern grills. My dining companion abandons the dish halfway through and starts eating chips and guacamole. "It's okay, but it gets boring," she says when I ask why she left so much of her dinner.

My other tablemate has ordered the mesquite-grilled mahi mahi and shrimp. It comes on a bed of rice with grilled squash and a little steel bowl of creamy green poblano sauce. While the tarry tang of the mesquite smoke adds extra flavor to the mild chicken breast, it sends the fish and shrimp over the top. My nose gets caught in the crossfire between the beachfront aroma of the assertively flavored dolphinfish (that's English for mahi mahi) and the pungent scent of the mesquite. If you love strong flavors, you might like it. But even then, it's a little bolder than it ought to be.

What's good at Los Tios: Traditional combination 
plates like the Acapulco Dinner.
Troy Fields
What's good at Los Tios: Traditional combination plates like the Acapulco Dinner.

Location Info

Map

Los Tios Mexican Restaurant

9527 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77063

Category: Music Venues

Region: Outer Loop - SW

Los Tios Mexican Restaurant

14006 Memorial
Houston, TX 77024

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Outer Loop - NW

Los Tios Mexican Restaurant

3308 Highway 6 S.
Houston, TX 77082

Category: Restaurant >

Region: Outer Loop - SW

Los Tios Mexican Restaurant

4840 Beechnut
Houston, TX 77096

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Outer Loop - SW

Details

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays.

Chile con queso: $3.95
Ceviche: $8.95
Acapulco Dinner: $10.45
Three cheese enchiladas: $8.25
Lunchie fajitas: $7.25
Lunchie margarita: $2.75

9527 Westheimer, 713-784-0380; 14006 Memorial Drive, 281-493-4700; 3308 Highway 6 South, 281-980-1313; 4840 Beechnut, 713-660-6244.

I order the classic Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas, which are stuffed with processed American cheese, sauced with chili gravy and topped with a little more of the same cheese. I should have asked for raw onions on top, but by the time I think of it, two and a half out of the three enchiladas are gone. The frijoles refritos served on the side are extremely smooth, without any of the partially mashed beans that I like in my refrieds, but the flour tortillas are handmade, so I can't complain. This is old-fashioned, Houston Tex-Mex, plain and simple. Of the three dinners, the cheese enchiladas are the only thing I would order again.

And the crowd seems to agree. Glancing around the restaurant. I see lots of dome-shaped puffy fried tortillas covered in queso (a Los Tios signature dish), lots of frozen margaritas and plenty of combination plates. But I don't see any manager's specials.


Thomas and Rosemary Garbett opened the first Los Tios Mexican Restaurant near the corner of Bissonnet and Fondren in 1970. When her husband died a few years later, Rosemary decided to run the operation on her own. She had quite a knack for business and grew the concern into a nine-location chain. Los Tios was known for its chile con queso, creamy green hot sauce and inexpensive Tex-Mex standards like puffy tacos and cheese enchiladas. To guarantee consistency, Rosemary ran a central commissary kitchen that produced the sauces and queso.

In the 1980s and 1990s, old-fashioned Tex-Mex began to fall out of favor and the Los Tios chain shrank. By 2000, only four restaurants remained. In October of that year, Rosemary sold a controlling interest in the four remaining locations to Gary Adair, owner of the Skeeters chain, under an agreement that allowed her to keep the commissary, which she expanded into a manufacturing concern called Tex-Mex Gourmet.

Rosemary and her son, Thomas Garbett III, operate Tex-Mex Gourmet, making salsas and quesos for wholesale distribution to restaurants. Initially, Adair was contractually obligated to buy the sauces for the Los Tios restaurants from Rosemary's company. But a little over a year ago, when the note was paid off, Adair was free to develop his own recipes. That's when the queso battle erupted (see Toque Off, "A Cheesy Controversy," June 3, 2004).

Adair, who had been eating at Los Tios for three decades, was slow to make any changes. He eventually tried a new queso recipe, switching to the industry standard, Land O' Lakes Extra Melt. From Adair's point of view, it was an improvement. The new queso was fresher and seemingly richer. But the loyal customers who have kept the four surviving Los Tios restaurants in business all these years were understandably adverse to change. They hated the new queso. Accusations flew back and forth. An employee at the Beechnut Los Tios told me the old queso recipe used powdered cheese.

"There was no powdered cheese in it," Thomas Garbett III said when asked about the original queso. "It's made with Velveeta and cheddar; you can still buy it at Spec's downtown store." Garbett owns a minority share in Los Tios and eats at the restaurant regularly. When asked what he thought of the new queso, he said, "I would have to agree with the customers' complaints -- it wasn't broken...It was a price issue." Extra Melt, a higher moisture processed cheese, has a different texture.

Adair has his own head chef, Garbett observes. The Skeeters chain serves mesquite grilled hamburgers and chicken breasts to a family crowd. Adair was convinced Los Tios customers wanted the grilled chicken, too.

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