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Mexican Mystery

Brush up on your Spanish Caf Maria, where the menus are bilingual, but the waitresses are not.
Amy Spangler

It's hard to believe that two restaurants with precisely the same, faintly redundant name, Café Maria Mexican Taco Café, are not related. One, let's call it the original Café Maria, is located on the busy border between the Heights and the north side, in Spanish Flower territory along North Main. The other Café Maria recently opened on Richmond way out at Fondren, in a dilapidated strip mall whose anchor tenant appears to be a cavernous disco.

I started picking at this puzzle after reading an advertisement for both restaurants. "Opening soon," I believe the ad said. "A new Café Maria Mexican Taco Café on Richmond." Now, wouldn't that fool just about anyone? Yet weeks later there was still no phone listing for the "new" Café Maria on Richmond.

I called the Heights cafe. "Is your new restaurant on Richmond open yet?" I asked. "No," said the woman on the phone. A moment of silence stretched over the wire. Baffled, I asked, "Um, do you have a new restaurant on Richmond?" "No," she replied flatly and hung up the phone.

Aha. Obviously an investigative visit was in order.

The Café Maria on North Main is an inviting little neighborhood taqueria, a storefront floored with orange and white tile in a strip shopping center that's open practically around the clock (6 a.m. to 3 a.m.) seven days a week. Two waitresses wait behind a small, brightly painted bar facing the door; on the left, two cooks work behind smoking griddles in a glassed-in kitchenette. There's a shiny chromed jukebox stocked with Tejano hits in one corner and a television suspended from the ceiling above it blasting Spanish-language westerns and steamy telenovelas in a steady undercurrent of sound. My friend and I were not only the lone gringas in the room, but we were the only ones who flinched when a rattling spray of movieland gunfire erupted from the TV.

Though the menu's bilingual, the waitresses are not (and neither am I), so a little mutual confusion accompanied all our transactions. The waitress explained that the quesadillas grandes ($4.50) are three flour tortillas filled with meat and cheese, and that we should choose the meat we wanted from the dozen or so on the list of taco fillings. Okay, I thought, three tortillas, three meats; so I asked for roast pork carnitas, chicken and birria -- baby goat. The waitress looked dismayed and hustled off for a muffled consultation with the two men at the grill behind the glass. "That's okay," she announced, rejoining us.

We realized our mistake when the plate of quesadillas arrived steaming hot from the grill. "Gray meat," said my friend, peeking inside the first folded tortilla. "Oops, gray meat here, too," I said, checking the second and third. It dawned on us that all three meats had been combined into all three tortillas. Oh, well. The handmade flour tortillas were heavenly, thin and tender, and the fresh Chihuahuan cheese inside was delicious, chewy and rich. The goat, though, I'll bet, was no baby, and unfortunately its strong flavor dominated the pork and chicken and everything else jumbled into the tortillas, as goat is wont to do. Next time, I think I'll try something that will complement that cheese: maybe the nopales, or even -- I admit it, I love them -- the chicharrones.

If you have a taste for guilty, ungentrified treats like crackly deep-fried pork skin, then Café Maria is definitely the place to indulge it. On weekends you'll find deep, steaming bowls of menudo ("chico," $3, "grande," $4.50), and grilled beef tripitas make daily appearances on the taco list and on the two mixed grill plates. A gorgeous deep red chorizo also comes with the larger Parrillada Mexicana platter ($8.95), dripping the requisite ruby grease.

That chorizo is the star of the Mexicana platter: smoky and fragrant with cumin, with just enough hot red chili pepper to pleasantly tickle the back of your throat. The beef and chicken fajitas paled by comparison, disappointingly bland. The chicken, pounded cardboard-thin, was inoffensive, but the grayish beef was stringy, flavorless and unforgivably tough. The shrimp were undersized and overcooked, equally forgettable. Though the plate comes with caramelized onions and a generous separate plate of rice and refried beans, there's only a dab of guacamole. Better to order the guacamole salad $agrave; la carte ($2.50) to augment your supply. It's pale green and creamy, thick with chopped onions and tomatoes, blessedly light on the cilantro and very good.

That's another Café Maria puzzle: Why should the grilled shrimp be so lackluster, while the shrimp in the caldo de mariscos ($7.95) are so marvelous? That giant bowl of soup is by far my favorite item on the menu, as a matter of fact. It's absolutely chock-full of much larger shrimp, suckered chunks of purplish octopus and fat, frilly-edged oysters, all afloat in a perfectly seasoned warm red broth that grows more satisfying with each taste. The octopus is beautifully cooked, tender and resilient, not tough and rubbery. Certainly many a more pretentious kitchen has gone astray cooking octopus; here, somebody really knows what to do with pulpo.

The same strange dichotomy applies to flour versus corn tortillas. Café Maria's flour versions are delicate and fresh, bearing all the irregularities that mark handmade, slightly chewy and golden tortillas from the griddle. The corn tortillas are uninspired, perfectly machined circles, stamped out long ago and far away and served indifferently lukewarm. This scorn for corn extends to the tortilla chips served with salsa at seating; they're unapologetically store-bought-style and just downright stale. I've often wondered if the flour-versus-corn debate has regional loyalties, the implication being in this taqueria norteña that if you're politically wrongheaded enough to ask for corn tortillas, you deserve what you get.

We left that day happy with the good things and at peace with the less successful, but with the final mystery unsolved: What's the deal with the twin cafe? So I traveled all the way out to 8929 Richmond to investigate. Sure enough, there's a brave little storefront tucked into the shadows of that ominous, black-walled disco. Its sign looks just like the one on North Main, and the name is identical. The menu is a twin, too.

Inside, the decor is a little more upscale. There are pretty mauve tablecloths on the dozen tables, and cloth napkins. The hostess station, made of shiny, dimpled aluminum, looks like a souvenir of some earlier, hipper incarnation.

"So," I asked the wide-eyed young girl behind the aluminum. "Is this place related to the Café Maria in the Heights?"

She gazed at me apprehensively, hesitating. "No," she finally said.

"Are you sure? You know the one I mean, Café Maria on North Main? The name is exactly the same," I protested.

"Okay," she admitted, blinking nervously. "It used to be the same until a month ago. Now it's not the same. It's a new owner, and there'll be a new menu," she explained, pausing long enough to snatch the telltale Café Maria menu from my hands. "And there'll be a new name." With this, she turned and scuttled back into the kitchen, leaving me alone in the deserted dining room.

Some mysteries, perhaps, are just not meant to be solved.

Café Maria Mexican 4721 North Main,(713)862-4090.


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