Don't Mess With Tex-Mex

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

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.

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.

Adair's head chef, Roberto Ozeata, is a Guatemalan who used to work at Carrabba's Italian Grill. Some of the changes he has brought to Los Tios, like the mesquite grill now used to cook the fajitas, are improvements. His roasted poblano sauce, which is served with the grilled fish and as a base for a roasted poblano salad dressing, is another nice addition. But some of Ozeata's innovations -- the grilled chicken salad with pepperoncini peppers and raspberry roasted chipotle dressing -- seem out of place at Los Tios.

As co-author of the cookbook Nuevo Tex-Mex, which included such innovations as shark-BLT tacos and black beans made with prosciutto, I realize I'm throwing stones out the window of my own glass house, but I think it's possible to modernize Tex-Mex without abandoning the genre. Too much of Ozeata's food, including the chicken salad and chef's specials, seem like dishes from a completely different cuisine. And without a taste memory of old-fashioned Tex-Mex, I suspect Ozeata has no way to know what people expect from classics like chile con queso.

I ordered Los Tios's "lunchie fajita plate" and "lunchie margarita" one recent afternoon-a-roonie. According to Rosemary Garbett, Los Tios was the first Tex-Mex chain in Houston to serve frozen margaritas. They have never lost the knack. The frozen tequila cocktails here are tart and pale green with lots of lime juice. The slush is the perfect consistency--soft enough to flow through a straw, thick enough to stand above the rim of the glass. The lunchie marg is about half the size of the regular, so you can drink one and get back to the office without stumbling.

The small order of rectangular beef strips grilled over mesquite and served with guacamole and refried beans was excellent. The beef was full-flavored, firm and a little chewy, not steamed into mush like much of what passes for fajita meat in this city. You can't go wrong with the new, improved fajitas at Los Tios.

My biggest disappointment from the old-fashioned Tex-Mex part of the menu is the puffy taco. When you pick one up and bite into it, the crispy tortilla explodes in your hands and the taco shrapnel cascades onto your plate. If you have eaten these at places like Henry's Puffy Tacos in San Antonio, you realize what a gigantic opportunity Los Tios is missing.

Frying a freshly formed disc of masa, a tortilla that has been pressed but not yet baked, yields a wonderfully bubbly puffy taco shell that is both crispy and pliant. Before the invention of the pre-formed taco shell, these puffy tacos were common in Texas. They have been making a comeback in San Antonio and Austin. Nobody in Houston is serving anything like them, except for the bad examples at Los Tios.

What's good at Los Tios are the tart frozen margaritas, the parfait glass full of fresh fish and shrimp ceviche, and traditional Tex-Mex combination plates like the Acapulco Dinner (beef taco, guacamole, queso over a crispy shell, cheese enchilada, tamale, chili gravy, rice and beans).

I have had quite a few of these combination plates, but the details run together. Beneath the dense covering of chili gravy and cheese, I can barely remember where the tamales left off and the enchiladas began. I do recall that Los Tios's chili gravy is dotted with the tiniest pieces of meat imaginable, barely bigger than flecks of black pepper, and that the cheese is American, not cheddar. I also recall a brilliant snowcap of fragrant grated onions on the crest of the enchilada summit. The rest is a delightful blur of brown chili gravy and melted yellow cheese scooped up with warm tortillas and washed down with an icy green alcoholic slush.

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Los Tios Mexican Restaurant

9527 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77063


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