Of Time and Tila's
The Original Tila's isn't the same as the original Tila's. It's good anyway.
By Margaret L. Briggs
Once upon a time, in the waning of the 1980s, a very popular restaurant called Tila's was born on the bend of lower Westheimer. Its crisp black-and-white-tile exterior wrapped around a softly lit interior. The neo-Mexican food and drink were innovative for that time and place, and its jazzy neon sign beckoned yuppie couples from all over town. Such was the place's cult status that the sign itself was worshiped in a doggerel song of the period. But the restaurant came to a tragic end when it burned to the ground in 1989.
I'm dredging up this history not to instruct the uninformed, but to warn the alumni: You can never go home again, and I'm not sure you should try.
Tila Hernandez has reincarnated "The Original Tila's" on a different bend of another Montrose road. I wonder if she's surprised to find that she's competing not with other restaurants, not even with the similarly named but completely unrelated Teala's on West Dallas, but with the collective urban memory of the first Tila's. Any jealous lover can tell you that the only thing worse than a living rival is the haloed perfection of a dead one.
When the Original Tila's opened last spring, its tiny dining room was jammed with nostalgic patrons of the former establishment. The rush for seating quickly disintegrated into a rush to judgment, weighing the new incarnation against the old -- unfairly so, I think. We were younger then, and perhaps all food tasted better; certainly the margaritas seemed headier and the lights more flattering. As a result, the early reviews on Tila's were anything but kind.
I was there in the early weeks, too, and I'll admit that there were some clunkers on the menu. Those spinach enchiladas, for example; I ordered them because enchiladas were the old Tila's strong suit. What I got was a wad of leathery, stringy leaves lurking under a clammy, incompatible ancho sauce. Brr. (They've since disappeared from the menu, I am relieved to report.) I've still got a personal problem with the ceviche: I hate those crumbly little bay shrimp. I don't believe it's possible to adequately clean the tiny buggers, hence the often gritty texture and faintly fungal taste that cannot be disguised in a marinated cocktail. And what happened to the gentle splash of orange juice that once graced the margaritas?
Since those bumpy opening weeks, though, Tila's has made swift and solid improvements. Maybe the margaritas aren't exactly as I remember, but they're still my favorite in this town, and recently there seems to be more freshly squeezed lime juice in proportion to tequila -- an improvement.
Once your drink is firmly in hand, start on the bucket of tortilla and plantain chips served with disarming red and green salsas, gently warmed and eager to please. Then try the beguiling salmon borracho ($6.95), rosy thin slices of tequila-marinated salmon accompanied by crisp rounds of toast and a creamy lime-cilantro sauce for slathering. You'll feel your stern resolve melting. This dish debuted under the less-accessible, less socially acceptable name Judio borracho. I'll bet the new, more straightforward nomenclature has spawned more orders.
On my first visit to Tila's new place, I was taken aback by how small the restaurant is. There are only a dozen polished wood tables in the main dining area, a handful more in alcoves along the side and rear, and a clutch nearby in the bar. (The parking lot, believe it or not, seems even smaller. Resign yourself to the tender mercies of the valets.) But I have to admit, the net result is not at all claustrophobic, thanks to high ceilings and generous window frontage. By day, the room brims with cheerful light; in the evening, the terra-cotta-toned pueblo palette glows cozy and inviting.
As the hubbub has died down, I've had no problem being seated. You can get in and out of Tila's in a reasonable lunch hour. If pressed for time, you can make a satisfactory meal from appetizers or the appealing selections under the menu's "Quick Orders" heading. The grilled sandwiches called tortas ($5.95) are excellent, served open-faced and filled with spicy shredded chicken or beef. The ensalada no. 1 ($5.95 ) is a photogenic mix of lovely dark greens with plenty of goodies -- "I can't believe how many artichoke hearts are in this," marveled a friend -- topped with rajas and a tangy, light balsamic-lime vinaigrette. (Oddly, there is no ensalada no. 2.)
I'm still of two minds about the soups. The first time I tried the black bean soup ($3.95), I practically swooned with bliss, overcome by its dark, rich undertones of roasted garlic, chile powder and cumin, topped with salty fresh farmer's cheese and crispy strips of fried tortillas. Perhaps the kitchen is equally divided on the matter: Later editions of the menu offer two versions of the soup, one identified as "thin," the other, presumably, thick. When questioned about the difference, my waiter explained that the thin version is thinner. Aha. My recent sampling of the thick didn't match my first impression (had I initially tried the thin without realizing it?); unfortunately, it was a blander, less-complex shadow of its former self. The yellow pepper soup sounds interesting, but isn't at all -- just gangly strips of pepper floating in a forgettable chicken broth. Fortunately, it's not available often enough to fret over.
Late-evening meals may be marred by the presence of raucous bar regulars -- on a recent visit, they were hilariously dialing stool-to-stool on their cell phones -- but a steadily improving menu easily compensates for the noise. The medallions of pork tenderloin are an impressive addition, marinated in a perky, slightly spicy mint-and-basil pesto and stuffed with sauteed endive and farmer's cheese ($13.95). The moist, fork-tender medallions are fanned like a winning poker hand over a gently understated wine demi-glace, and accompanied by an assortment of grilled vegetables. This entree is a real contender, and an encouraging sign of a kitchen gaining confidence.
Those damned bay shrimp appear more successfully in the seafood chilaquiles ($12.95), a casserole of layered tortillas and shrimp laced with a delightful chipotle salsa. I like it even though I feel faintly guilty about it; it's an unsophisticated comfort food, rescued from the excessive creaminess of similar casseroles by the light touch of that faintly astringent salsa.
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Speaking of childish delights, did I mention Tila's elote ($1.95)? It's roasted corn on the cob drizzled with lime and chile powder, just like a Mexican street vendor's version. What a relief: I no longer have to skulk around Wal-Mart's parking lot in Galveston to indulge my shameful craving.
Which brings us to the decidedly grown-up desserts. The ancho fudge pie ($5.95) sounds weird but tastes great; one bite and you'll be wondering why anchos aren't in everybody's fudge. Perhaps the teeny bit of pain enhances the pleasure: The subtlest hint of heat puts a sublime edge on the chocolatey sweetness, which is then draped with threads of sour cream. (Just trust me.) The Mexican lime pie ($4.95) ain't bad either, a layered affair with crushed Marie's vanilla wafers. I still haven't tried the cheesecake, and may never: It's identified as "pie de queso," and as several waggish friends have pointed out, "pie" in Spanish means "foot." Somehow, I can't bring myself to ask for a "foot of cheese."
What's in a name? A lot, of course. Judio or salmon, cheesecake or cheese foot -- and of course, the Original Tila's itself. By any other name, the restaurant would have met with a warmer reception. But in the end, the name is just a name, and it's time to move on. Forget the old place. Appreciate the new one's good points. Love the one you're with.
The Original Tila's, 1111 South Shepherd, 522-7654.
Published:In our October 29 Cafe review ("Of Time and Tila's, by Margaret Briggs), we misstated the proprietor's name: it is Tila Hildago Leach. The review also wrongly stated that the first Tila's closed after the restaurant burned. According to a spokesman for the 616 Westheimer Coporation, which now owns the building, it's windowsills were blackened by fungus, not fire. Furthermore, Tila Hildago Leach tells us that her margaritas never included the gentle splash of orange juice that our reviewer remembered, nor is there now a touch of cumin in the black-bean soup. Cumin, she says with disdain, is a Tex-Mex spice and isn't allowed in her kitchen.