It's official: Houston's landmark Felix Mexican Restaurant [904 Westheimer, (713)529-3949] is open again for business. The 50-year-old family-run restaurant, a favorite of celebs such as Linda Ellerbee and Marvin Zindler as well as almost every other native Houstonian home or abroad, closed last July after a rooftop fire that wreaked at least $50,000 in structural damage.

"We were nervous about the opening, after so long and so many delays," explains owner Felix Tijerina Jr. Tijerina, whose parents, Felix Sr. and Janie Tijerina, opened in the same location in 1948, initially had planned to reopen in October. "And then we had construction delays. Then we thought maybe the first of December. And then it still wasn't finished," he says wearily.

Tijerina needn't have worried. On the big day, Monday, December 13, he was too busy to talk. "We'd hoped to be busy, at least at lunch," he says. "But by that night we had a line of customers out the door waiting for dinner. On a Monday night!" he exclaims in wonderment.

So how did the faithful find out so quickly? "They just called us and called us," says Tijerina. "Every day our voice mail was full."

Renovations included a complete refurbishment of the old kitchen. "Our equipment was really old, so we replaced it all with brand-new. We're real proud of the kitchen now. It's even air-conditioned," he says.

But the dining room looks almost exactly as it always did. "Before the fire, we took down all the pictures and repainted the dining room white, instead of the yellow it used to be. Our customers got very upset at that," he says with a laugh.

"They told us we had no right to change these things. We take our customers very seriously." Those same pictures will be back on the walls soon, Tijerina promises.

Almost every employee is back, too, waiters and cooks and everyone. The Tijerinas were able to keep up payroll through business-interruption insurance for the first 60 days after the fire; after that, they dipped into their personal savings to cut paychecks as long as they could. "I lost my bookkeeper," says Tijerina regretfully. "But everybody else is back. All I can say is, thank God for insurance."

Three Steaks and You're Out

It sounded too funny and bizarre to be true: The recent rumor that longtime Tex-Mex restaurant and urban hangout Café Noche [2409 Montrose, (713)529-2409] would be transmogrified into a steak house certainly raised some eyebrows. Plenty of people predicted dire straits for Noche when impresario Bill Sadler formally cut the apron strings in 1998. None of those doom-mongers have yet been proved right, but it turns out there is some "meat" to this latest tale.

"Oh, that story started because we've started offering certified Angus steaks," explained Noche assistant manager Jeff Laufman. "We've got three different steaks -- a filet, a T-bone and a porterhouse -- rotating on the special off-the-menu list right now. When we get the new menus printed up next week, we'll offer all three steaks all the time."

So, it's not as if chef-owner Alan Mallett will abruptly abandon his quirky form of designer Tex-Mex that has been Café Noche's calling card for years. "Oh, I took a few items off the new menu," says Mallett. "Like those cabrito empanadas in puff pastry. I thought they were really good, but people just weren't ordering them." Rest assured, he says, the customer favorites will still be there, right down to the killer margaritas at the bar and the fresh watermelon juice on the Sunday buffet.

"But adding quality beef to our menu will make us the first Mexican steak house in town," promises Laufman. One with fine wines, but without cigars, Mallett adds. "We'll let people smoke them, but we won't sell them," he says. "I think that cigar thing has pretty well run its course, don't you?"

Let's hope so.


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