Strike one against fledgling restaurateur Gildardo Leon: He opened his new Tex-Mex restaurant, El Jarrito [870 S. Mason Road, (281)392-7277], in the same strip mall spot where Monterrey's Tex-Mex Cafe already bit the dust. Strike two: His modest operation is smack across the street from a Ninfa's outlet that's still got a pulse and less than ten miles from west Houston's Tex-Mex mecca, Lupe Tortilla's. Strike three? Leon tried to emulate the Lupe empire's very successful menu a little too closely, inviting the wrath of Lupe's commandant Stan Holt.
Leon was a waiter in Holt's employ at Lupe Tortilla's for more than a decade, and Holt believes Leon not only copied the menu, he tried to lure away his former co-workers. Shortly after our review of Lupe's ran last November, we had a call from an attorney Leon retained to protect himself from Holt's attention.
"Gildardo Leon is a guy I'd love to put in front of a jury," gloats Michael Easton, legal assistant to Houston attorney Peter Riga. "He gave many years of good and loyal service to Mr. Holt, all the while saving his nickels and dimes to realize the American dream of opening his own place. When Leon did attain his lifelong dream with El Jarrito, Mr. Holt terrorized him."
According to Easton, Holt initially tried to block Leon's financing. Then he "invaded" Leon's restaurant, accused him of copying the Holt family's menu and threatened him with lawyers and deportation. (Easton is quick to point out that Leon is, in fact, an American citizen.) "This hard-working man was in tears, he was so frightened," says Easton.
Holt tells the story differently: "The first time I saw Gildardo Leon's menu, it was item-for-item identical to Lupe Tortilla's. Even his logo was a copy of our logo, with a sombrero stuck on top. I explained to Gildardo that you just can't do that. You can't just steal someone's hard work. And I explained to him that he was inviting a lawsuit. I have a fiduciary responsibility to my investors to protect the Lupe Tortilla's concept. I'm not sure he understood that."
Easton and Riga fired off blustery counterthreats to Holt in October, and since then all has been quiet on the western front. "I don't understand why Mr. Holt would try to scare me like that," says Leon. "But now I hope he's forgotten all about me."
Holt claims that Leon has since modified El Jarrito's menu and logo, which the curious can find on-line at www.flash.net/~aqwarner/. Menu copycatting is easy to allege and darned hard to prove, and besides, it's not a crime. If it's true that El Jarrito's revised menu still looks a little like Lupe Tortilla's, one could argue that there are a thousand such numbered lists of textbook Tex-Mex in the city -- homemade tortillas, cheese and jalapeno nachos, taco salads, enchilada dinners, beef and chicken fajitas. As an amateur food detective, though, I'll readily admit there is a strong resemblance between Leon's fajita seasonings and Holt's.
Otherwise, though, the places are as unlike as chalk and cheese. Leon's food is cheaper, Holt's is better; Leon's inexperienced waitstaff bumbles amiably, while Holt's longtime servers are precision-trained. At least Leon had the sense to tone down the Spanglish phrases that are a trademark of the Holt menu. El Jarrito's picante sauce "Es hot stuff," says Leon's menu. "Es preety spicy and so goood weeth our margaritas," says Holt's.
Despite the odds, El Jarrito is gaining popularity. A recent afternoon visit to the cheerful cafe, swathed in the red, white and green of the Mexican flag, found a bustling crowd of grandparents, soccer moms and mall rats happily eating in and carrying out.
-- Margaret L. Briggs
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