Random Ephemera

Houston's Best Late-Night Dining: Chapultepec Is for Flautas and Weirdos

Let off some steam, why don't you?
Let off some steam, why don't you? Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp
"I wonder what it looks like here in the daytime," the cohort says.

That's probably a common question among Chapultepec Lupita customers.  It's the type of place you can't imagine even existing in daylight hours, the restaurant's exterior probably just blending into the ghostly expanse of nothingness the sky becomes during the blistering hot summer here. It's easy enough to drive right past this place at night, even with the neon sign illuminated and a slender, rather treacherous driveway belying the fact that a cramped back parking lot is forever packed with cars.

You practically need sunglasses to enter, the light pouring out the door as it does from the demonic television in Poltergeist, or maybe, as some say, from the pearly gates of heaven. Your choice what dimension you're entering, but the Chapultepec universe is centered around one thing: late-night Tex Mex.

You better be comfortable around all sorts of (other) weirdos who lurk in the night. I do mean that in the best way possible.

Seriously. What is with this crazy, amazing restaurant? Its actual, physical manifestation is textbook Choose Your Own Adventure. Do you want to stick with the first dining room, its small, austere quality like that of many a roadside dive out in the country, or do you dare step up the ramp to the second dining room, a squeezed-in vision from a bygone era, lit up all harsh by the dressing-room-quality fluorescents. Red booths, scuffed floors, plants of questionable, perhaps plastic, nature. A 1970s-era Jerry Hall should be clad in a silk kimono, posing coyly across a table for some disco-era Vogue fashion shoot. Instead you get a two-top of older, fatter dudes sipping coffee, one in a shirt so neon green nobody over ten should be allowed to wear it.

Keep going. Choose the down ramp. Enter a third area, an indoor space that looks like it used to be more of a parking lot than an add-on eating area. Bare-knuckle tables and a jukebox and string lights, only some of which are turned on, spruce up the tile floors. The windows are tinted to a shade that would get us pulled over if the place were on wheels, and considering the amount of cops that I've been told hang out here, it makes it all a little more promising, this trip for drunk food.

Though I have been told by the cohort that the dish to order is always the No. 31 Chapultepec Special, instead I attempt to read the veritable tome of a menu with its endless specials, but cannot. I make it one page in, like I'm 16, 24, 30 or again 35 years old with The Brothers Karamazov in hand, before releasing a heavy sigh and asking the cohort for the highlights.

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Do not attempt to stare into the Queso Flameado when sober.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp
The queso flameado with chorizo is ordered.

The server doesn't attempt to fold it into tortillas tableside, all classy-like, instead abandoning the hulking beast of it on the center of the table, where it glistens and bubbles and threatens to burn the flesh off your fingers if you approach it too quickly. What secrets this magical bog of cheese and chorizo conceal are anyone's guess, but peppers and onions do lurk in there, unexpected megalodons of the abyss that they are. There is one obvious existential lesson to be learned here: The better part of this queso will stay in your gut for at least a day, maybe a year, maybe your whole pathetic life. The digestive process stretching out, I imagine, like that of Juicy Fruit.

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Chicken flautas
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp
This is the place. The place with the flautas. They arrive crisp and hard-packed with tender chicken, rolled up the same size as cigars, the same give when you press your teeth into them, but you don't want to do that before dipping into the accompanying queso and then scooping up the guac, sour cream and pico de gallo too, until the whole thing looks like a big, dripping Tex Mex-type of Pocky.

Fajitas hit the table. They sizzle and steam and for a moment, with the tortilla raised to my lips, everything around us slips away; there is only the salty, tender fulfillment of midnight tacos al carbon. The last lick of salt on the glass. The margarita sucked up from its rocks. The tortillas run out. We're pretty much done here.

Beyond us, there's another room that's actually a bar, but nobody is in there partying, just a pair of older, quiet ladies enjoying a meal.  There are doors that seemingly lead to nowhere. Our server has disappeared through one of them. Nearby a woman joins a random older man at a table, an online date, I get the feeling, from a lesser, scarier type of dating site. The word Hilary slips from his lips in the quieter moments when the Mexican rave music isn't raining down on our folding chairs.

A droning sound comes over the loud speaker then, a single note.

"Arcade Fire," the cohort says. "I can tell that intro anywhere."

"Weird," I say, though occasional hipster music certainly doesn't seem like the weirdest thing about Chapultepec.

We head toward the counter, its jar of colorful, Chiclet-style gum and plastic cabinet of candy curiosities lined up there, so your last moment in the joint will be one of sweetness, of the halcyon days of candy shops and childhood innocence, before you pry the door open and head back to wherever it is the people like you come from.

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Gwendolyn Knapp is the food editor at the Houston Press. A sixth-generation Floridian, she is still torn as to whether she likes smoked fish dip or queso better.