The tattered strip center at Richmond and Woodhead divulges few clues that inside, a Montrose institution is aborning. First you notice that cars often throttle the parking lot in front of a Spartan corner grocery and faceless taqueria. Then you become distracted by the engagingly named You-All Laundromat. Many drive-bys later, it dawns on you that a wild assortment of people is issuing from the taqueria door, and that something interesting must be going on inside that horizontal slit of flowery-curtained window.
That's putting it mildly. Within the cheerless facade of the Taqueria la Tapatia lurks a certifiable inner-Loop hot spot -- a 1995 edition of the late great Las Cazuelas, that lively north-side barn where mainstream Houstonians first met the working-class barrio back in the seventies.
It is a measure of how Houston has changed that La Tapatia is not the exotic adventure that Las Cazuelas once seemed to late-night slummers; it is simply an accepted Montrose amenity, one of those vital places where the life of the city is sustained. Cheap, spirited food (much of it better than anything Las Cazuelas ever served) and a chipper ambiance generate a democratic immigrant-boho-Gen X scene that is nourishing in its own right.
Body-pierced twentysomethings spoon out industrial-strength green sauce next to populous young families who've strolled over from nearby apartment complexes for a taco feed. Hispanic businessmen confer over calculators and torpedo-sized tortas. Dramatically mustachioed and long of hair, a cowboy-booted criminal lawyer makes his way to a rear booth, supremely conscious of the fact that he looks like a Mexican rock star. Grunge boys and pale waifettes by the dozen parade the latest styles-o'-Montrose. A beer-gutted peckerwood lumbers in, deep-cleavaged girlfriend in tow, and grandly proclaims, "This is my favorite place!"
At the heart of the linoleum- and plastic-clad bower that embraces these disparate types, a fountain burbles merrily. A Latin jukebox throbs. Ceramic sun faces beam. On the airborne television set, adulterer-del-dia Antonio Banderas tries to justify l'affaire Melanie Griffith to a Spanish-language talk show hostess. But why bother to translate when eavesdropping on one's fellow diners is so much more rewarding?
"Short wave, long wave, sun spots," goes one tantalizing snippet from a couple of plaid-shirted youths hoisting icy mugs of beer. "So that they can react more quickly than their adversary and kill them with one quick blow," pops forth. There is talk of "primitive drum beats" and "Sony Corporation" and "Jamison's Irish whiskey, it's so smooth, man." Too bad the reception fades after the revelation that "Then the waitress slapped her!"
Clearly they're speaking of some other establishment, for La Tapatia's young waitresses do not appear to be the slapping type. Starched and bustling in spiffy black and white street clothes, they seem to have been selected for cuteness -- it's easy to imagine them waving from atop a Cinco de Mayo float -- a circumstance much appreciated by the restaurant's male clientele.
The senorita brigade wastes no time slapping down baskets of crisp tortilla chips, the kind Houstonians fuel on to obsession. La Tapatia's tart, hot green sauce drives up consumption, and on certain auspicious days, when chile seeds and a cumin undercurrent kick in, the red sauce does, too. Even the complimentary bowlsful of escabeche-style pickled vegetables aid and abet chip-eating; indeed, so mild and half-crunchy and fresh are these carrots, cauliflower, green chiles and stubby garlic toes that after awhile you just start eating them straight. Dice some up to garnish an enchilada? Good idea. Tuck one into a torta? Even better.
Those monumental tortas happen to be the glory of La Tapatia. They are landmark stuff: the pillowy bolillos crisped on the grill; an excelsior of lettuce and tomato contradicting the unctuousness of avocado, refried beans and cool sour cream; frizzled bits of griddle-browned fajita beef or pork al pastor nudging the play of textures over the top. There's a pechuga version that's better than the grilled chicken-breast sandwiches served at far more expensive restaurants; at $3.35, a buck more than most of the tortas here, it's still a remarkable bargain.
For a quarter, you can add a soft mesh of white cheese that makes the get-down rendition of beef fajitas work even better. Strictly speaking, green sauce is not even required to doll up these tortas, but it contributes to the fun. Order a soothing, cinnamon-dusted banana licuado in a tall ice-cream glass, and you have the perfect lunch.
The shrimp dishes for which La Tapatia has made an underground name for itself are more of a mixed bag. The shellfish involved are generally iodine-free and probably dwelt for a time in a freezer bag. When the small shrimp have not been cooked past the dew point, the simple, double-wrapped shrimp tacos dusted with cilantro and raw onion can please mightily, especially with a green sauce pick-me-up. When the shrimp are dryish, disaster.
They work well, though, swirled into a ranchero-sauced queso, the white cheese stringily molten before it starts its inevitable slide toward solidity. And folded into corn tortillas with a minimum of salsa ranchera and blanketed with white cheese, the shrimp do a comforting enchilada job, sans fireworks. (Here's where those pickled vegetables come in handy.) Like most of La Tapatia's fare, these are workaday treatments with no airs and a fair degree of competence. Except for the sensational tortas, the food can't rival the painstaking auteurship of Otilia's on Long Point, but it's a cut above its multitudinous strip-center taqueria rivals.
Bigger shrimp swim in a straightforward, brick red soup to doctor with cilantro, minced onion and (by request) fresh lime. It's decent enough, but no match for the fragrant, restorative caldo de pollo brimming with rice and tender chicken on the bone.
Forget the appallingly sweet chicken mole enchiladas. Shun the refried beans, which fly wildly between soupy and stiffish, in favor of the heady frijoles a la charra stocked with big old bacon and pork flaps. Don't try to order the lemonade, because for some unfathomable reason, they don't serve it anymore. And be advised that breakfasting after 11 a.m. will add one dollar to your modest bill, an interesting custom that seems more civilized, somehow, than discontinuing breakfast altogether once the sun gets too high. The need for a Mexican breakfast can strike at any hour.
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One more thing: consider the brains. La Tapatia serves this outre delicacy in various forms -- taco-ed, torta-ed, burrito-ed -- and they're fresh enough to make the experiment worthwhile. Wrapped in a double-tortilla envelope, they have a deep, mysterious softness you either love or hate. La Tapatia's green sauce plays against the satin-smooth texture; so do chopped cilantro and onion. These may not be the celestial brains in green sauce once found at the Paso del Norte in Juarez, but they'll do nicely for an everyday version. And you're almost guaranteed to get a gratifying rise out of your tablemates by ordering them.
You pay up front, along with the superannuated hippies, the guy with the half-bleached hair sticking three inches straight up and the ponytailed Aztec prince with the teeny-tiny sunglasses. Nobody charges you for the sense of belonging to a city that is still in the stimulating process of making itself up.
Taqueria la Tapatia, 1749 Richmond, 521-3144.
torta al pastor, $2.25;
torta de pechuga, $3.35;
shrimp taco, $1.50;
banana licuado, $2.00.