The milanesa at La Plaza Mexican Restaurant on Bingle is a thin, pounded steak covered with bread crumbs and fried. It's served with a lemon wedge and a dollop of guacamole, along with some creamy refried beans and Spanish rice. Each bite crunches audibly while you chew.
I squeezed the lemon wedge over top of the crispy steak and spread a little guacamole on the big chunks as I carved them. But knee-jerk Texan that I am, I craved some cream gravy for this Mexican chicken-fried steak. I asked the guy behind the counter if there was any sort of dip for the milanesa. I figured he'd offer me some gravy, but instead he sent out some pico de gallo and told me to cut up the steak, put it on a tortilla, top it with the salsa and roll up some tacos. The milanesa tacos were excellent, if not exactly what I had in mind.
The nachos were big pieces of fried tortilla topped with a generous layer of refried beans and lots of yellow cheese, with a big bowl of pickled jalapeño slices on the side. They reminded me of Brown's in San Antonio, where bean-topped nachos are known as "panchos." The cheese enchiladas at La Plaza reminded me of San Antonio too — the cheese was wonderfully liquid and the tortillas were colored orange. But I suspect that La Plaza tints its tortillas with chile sauce instead of the red food coloring used in the Alamo City.
La Plaza Mexican Restaurant
1803 Bingle Rd., 713-468-9946.
Hours:6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 6 a.m. to 4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Breakfast Special: $4.95
The tender and alluringly charred fajitas on my dining companion's plate were served with pico de gallo, guacamole, rice and beans and hot flour tortillas. I ate a fajita taco courtesy of my tablemate. There was nothing exceptional about the crunchy milanesa, the oozy cheese enchiladas, the chunky nachos and the grilled fajitas. They were humble Mexican coffee-shop dishes with simple and straightforward flavors — and I loved every bite.
While we ate, I admired the decorations mounted on the back wall surrounding the big-screen television set. There was a collection of police badges (a lot of cops eat here) and a display case containing a football signed by Mack Brown. There was also an autographed photograph of Earl Campbell and another of the football-coaching legend Darrell K. Royal.
I am sentimental to a fault when it comes to old-timey Tex-Mex food. And I am equally irrational in my devotion to the University of Texas Longhorn football team. Which makes me doubly at home at La Plaza Mexican Restaurant on Bingle. This place is heaven for Houston Tex-Mex/Longhorn fans.
"I've been a Longhorns fan for a long time," said the guy behind the counter. Valdemar "Val" Villareal, the owner and line cook at La Plaza, quit his job at the rice mill and took the place over from his parents 18 years ago when they retired. "It was an American restaurant in the beginning — we didn't add the Mexican food until the 1970s," he said.
"This guy from the Houston Press came in a couple of weeks ago and got it all wrong," Val told me. "He said this was a Mexican restaurant. But it's an American restaurant too. We have always been proud of that."
The guy from the Houston Press was me. I am not sure what I got wrong exactly, since the sign out front says "La Plaza Mexican Restaurant." True, one side of La Plaza's menu features Tex-Mex dishes and the other side is all-American stuff. But it's a pretty short menu. Half of the American side is devoted to breakfasts including pancakes and waffles. Then there's a couple of burgers. I asked Val if he ground his own beef and formed his own patties. He said he just bought Black Angus burgers.
The other sandwiches on the American menu were made with bacon and/or eggs. There were also a couple of steaks — but that's about it.
The first time I wandered into La Plaza was on a Saturday morning, and the place was packed. It looked like a classic coffee shop, with a few booths along the front wall, a half a dozen tables and a counter with round backless stools overlooking the short-order grill. The floor was linoleum tile, the tabletops were Formica and the fluorescent bulbs were bare.
The crowd was a motley crew of cops, Mexican-American families and hipsters reading newspapers. There weren't any tables available, but it was a nice day and there was a seating area on the sidewalk out front with polished stainless steel tables surrounded by big potted plants. So I took a seat outside.
I ordered machacado, the dried beef-and-scrambled egg dish that's popular in Northern Mexico. It's one of my favorite Mexican breakfasts, and I was kind of surprised to see it on such a short menu. I was even more astonished when La Plaza's version, prepared with lots of onions and chiles, turned out to be one of the best I've had on this side of the border. The eggs and beef came with a generous side of beans and excellent handmade flour tortillas.
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I figured out why the machacado tasted so good while admiring the photos on the walls near the cash register. There is a La Plaza logo with the words "since 1964" painted underneath. The logo is surrounded by a collection of photos of the Mexican mountains. I asked a waitress about them, and she said they were photos of the village where the Villareal family came from — a ranching town in the desert between Monterrey and Laredo — prime machacado territory.
On another visit, I sampled the migas. La Plaza doesn't serve the usual version with crushed tortilla chips and scrambled eggs. Instead, they make a delicious Mexican chilaquiles omelet with hand-torn corn tortillas lightly fried, then cooked in a spicy chile sauce. The Mexican egg dishes at La Plaza are spectacular.
From the American side of the menu, I sampled eggs, bacon and hash browns with toast. The eggs were perfectly cooked, and the bacon was meaty. The hash browns were made from hand-cut potatoes, but they lacked seasoning and they weren't very crispy. I also had a thick waffle. It had a bitter aftertaste that reminded me of old cooking spray — maybe the waffle iron needed cleaning. The coffee was nothing special either. I wish Val would invest in some premium Mexican-grown fresh-roasted coffee beans.
Valdemar "Val" Villareal is proud that he has kept the American fare that his parents once served on the menu. But make no mistake. It's the Villareal family's wonderful Tex-Mex and Northern Mexican cooking that makes his little coffee shop a fabulous place to eat — that, and the Longhorns memorabilia. Tell Val that clueless guy from the Houston Press sent you. But bring cash; he doesn't take plastic.