Chipotle off the Old Block

Serranos may not be an old-fashioned Tex-Mex shrine, but you can still count on its cheese enchiladas.
Troy Fields

Just like the old-fashioned Tex-Mex version, Serranos' cheese enchiladas are crispy on the ends and covered with chile gravy. But unlike the classic kind, these stuffed tortillas are also topped with a pile of mesquite-grilled "chicken fajitas." (Chickens don't actually have skirts, but you knew that.) Combine this dish with a frozen margarita, and the dining experience sums up what the restaurant is all about. The Austin-based company's slogan is "Serranos: Tex-Mex, Mesquite, Margaritas."

I think of Serranos' "fajitas and enchiladas" plate as an Austin botanas platter. Botanas means appetizers. But it's also what locals of the Lower Rio Grande Valley call their signature Tex-Mex dish, which is essentially a platter of nachos or chalupas with a huge pile of chopped fajita meat on top. The Austin version substitutes cheese enchiladas for the chalupas or nachos.

It will be interesting to see how Houston takes to the Serranos style of Mexican food. The Austinites have certainly done a good job of toning down the over-the-top atmosphere of the former Los Tonyos location, which was festooned with cartoon monkeys. My dining companion refers to this redecorating project as de-monkey-fication. She likes what they've done, especially the addition of the big wooden panels on the walls.

She does not, however, approve of her tortilla soup. I had just made her tortilla soup the week before, and she ordered it again at Serranos because she loved mine so much. My recipe is pretty simple. I make broth with water and a whole chicken; then I add vegetables and a can of Rotel Extra Hot Tomatoes and serve it with tortilla chips, avocado and cheese. Serranos' recipe was close, but they omitted the crucial Rotel tomatoes, so the broth had a spice level of zero. Dumping an entire bowl of hot sauce into the soup helped a little.

I tried Serranos' frozen margarita, which is a nice balance of tart and sweet. We also sampled a drink special called a Mexican martini, which was served in a shaker and came with olives on toothpicks. According to the table-tent advertisement for the drink, it's made with Hornitos tequila, Cointreau, sweet and sour mix, and olive juice. I suppose the olive juice is a substitute for salting the rim of the glass, but olives taste pretty weird in a margarita, if you ask me. I'm more familiar with a Mexican martini made of tequila, Cointreau and fresh-squeezed lime juice shaken over ice -- a drink that is very strong and very tart.

The evolution of the margarita is a fascinating story. The original margarita was a high-alcohol, martini-style drink much like the one on the table. In the beginning, a frozen margarita was the very same drink, just thrown in the blender with ice. But then in 1971, the same year that the Texas legislature made liquor by the drink legal in Texas, a Mexican restaurant owner in Dallas named Mariano Martinez had the bright idea of making margaritas in a slushee machine. But Mariano found that original-recipe margaritas wouldn't freeze into slush because the percentage of alcohol was too high. He didn't want to water down the drink. So instead of decreasing the alcohol, he increased the sugar. At a higher Brix level (the measure of sugar in a solution) the drink froze beautifully.

If you consider Serranos' frozen margarita and its Mexican martini side by side, you get an instant insight into the popularity of the frozen margarita. It isn't just the slushy consistency that makes the frozen version so beloved, it's also much sweeter than the original. I like the first few sips of a premium margarita, but I can drink a lot more of the frozen ones.

A few days later at lunch, I order pollo chipotle.

"Pollo chipolty," the waitress says, nodding.

"Are you from Texas?" I ask.

"No, Louisiana," she admits. "Why? Did I say it wrong?"

"It's chi-POAT-lay," I tell her.

The grilled chicken is pleasant, and the chipotle sauce is wonderfully piquant and very smoky. The topping of avocado and tomato seems a little more appropriate to a salad than grilled chicken with chile sauce. But the accompanying charro beans, made with lots of bacon, are excellent.

Unfortunately, my dining companion, who has ordered the vegetarian spinach enchiladas, gets the same bacon-flavored beans. The enchiladas are covered with what's billed as a poblano cream sauce, but it's short on poblanos and tastes like warm sour cream. We call the waitress over and ask that vegetarian black beans be substituted for the bacony pintos.

"What's the point of devoting an entire section of your menu to vegetarian entrées and then serving them with meat-studded sides?" my companion wonders.

"I didn't think there were any vegetarians in Houston," our Louisiana waitress says by way of explanation when she returns with the meatless beans. "How is your chi-POAT-lay chicken?" she asks me, enunciating carefully. I tell her the chipotle sauce is just fine.

The chipotle pepper, which is the smoked form of the jalapeño, burst onto the Texas food scene during the Southwestern cuisine explosion of the 1990s. Mesquite-grilled fish, shrimp and chicken served with sauces made of chipotles, poblanos and other uncommon peppers were first seen in Southwestern restaurants. Then the trickle-down began.

Serranos was the first Mexican restaurant to serve chipotle sauce in Austin. It pioneered a new style of Texas Mexican food that combined old Tex-Mex classics with modern Southwestern cuisine ingredients and techniques. Serranos was a relatively inexpensive place to get mesquite-grilled shrimp, fish and chicken in the same exotic pepper sauces served at Southwestern restaurants.

Serranos quickly became popular in Austin and expanded into multiple locations. (There are ten Austin Serranos today.) But by 1997, the chain had begun encountering financial trouble. According to a story in the Austin Business Journal at the time, the catering end of the business entered bankruptcy, and liens were filed against several of the restaurants.

"I remember that," says my lunch companion, who once worked as a waitress at Serranos. "Our paychecks were bouncing all over the place." The restaurant where she worked was packed on the weekends, she remembers, but slow for most of the week. The food was always just average, she says. And there were many other Mexican restaurants to choose from in Austin at the time. Places like Chuy's were wildly successful because they had exciting food, a campy atmosphere and lower prices.

Bizarrely, in 1998, just one year after sorting out its own financial mess, the Serranos organization bought the Ninfa's chain, which had gone into bankruptcy in Houston. According to a story in Texas Monthly, Serranos was the underdog in a bidding war that included Gene Street, the owner of the Black-eyed Pea restaurants, and Italian restaurant mogul Tony Vallone, among others.

After his short-lived Los Tonyos experiment fizzled, Vallone is no doubt thankful he lost that bidding war for Ninfa's. His special genius for running restaurants doesn't seem to translate to Mexican food. By buying the Ninfa's chain and the Los Tonyos location, Serranos has saved Tony Vallone from his Mexican hubris twice.

Over the years, the image of Serranos has faded into one of those middle-of-the-road restaurants that doesn't do anything particularly well. It's not an old-fashioned Tex-Mex shrine, although you can get some very good cheese enchiladas there. And it isn't a fine dining grill, although there are plenty of mesquite-grilled chicken, shrimp and fajita dishes to choose from.

Serranos should find an audience on Shepherd. It has kept Los Tonyos's popular brunch unchanged (down to the pink flamingos). It also serves an excellent weekday breakfast complete with freshly baked Mexican sweet breads. And it does all the basics, like freshly made flour tortillas, charro beans and Tex-Mex enchiladas, extremely well.

It's true that chipotle sauce and mesquite grilling aren't all that innovative anymore. But that doesn't matter when the frozen margaritas are cheap and the patio faces the sunset.

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