¡Party en el Patio!

Salt doesn't stick very well to the rim of a plastic cup, so you might say my margarita was "lightly salted." Otherwise, it was a pretty average lime-green machine-made frozen margarita in a dinky container. But nevertheless, it was a historic cocktail: the first margarita ever served on the new deck at Rico's Triangle Restaurant. Being there to drink it took a lot of luck and some dogged reporting.

Finding the deck was a challenge in itself. The beautiful new outdoor seating area at Rico's is furnished with designer ceiling fans, 30 modern stainless-steel tables, potted plants and a giant banner with the restaurant's logo. But its location is a secret.

The entrance to the alfresco dining area is at the very back of the restaurant through a door marked "Employees Only." I tried to joke about the sign with my waitress, but she didn't get it. I suspect that nobody who works at Rico's has given much thought to how odd this sign is because so few of Rico's employees speak (or read) English.


Rico's Triangle Restaurant

4002 North Main, 713-880-1564.

Open 24 hours daily.

Fajitas for one: $8.50
Huevos rancheros: $3.95
Machacado con huevo: $6.50
Menudo: $4.50
Chilaquiles: $4.25

Rico's Triangle Restaurant didn't have a deck when I first stumbled in one morning about five years ago. I was in search of coffee and an egg taco, and after looking around at the dark and dingy dining room, I decided to get my breakfast to go. The place was a dump -- and the coffee was terrible.

A couple of months ago, a friend recommended I check it out again. In business since 1974, Rico's had undergone a major renovation. I stopped in and looked around. The dining room was much cheerier. The menu was different. The food had vastly improved. And the restaurant was open 24 hours a day.

I found the deck on my first visit to the newly remodeled restaurant because my friend told me it was there. There was nobody else sitting outside, but it was a gorgeous morning, so I sat by myself eating chips and salsa, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. The tortilla chips were the thin, crispy kind, and the salsa was a heated orange sauce with lots of zip.

I ordered huevos rancheros, which featured a spicy tomato sauce and two very neatly cooked eggs -- they were perfectly round and delicately done, as if they had been half-poached and half-fried. I once knew a short-order cook who achieved the same delicious effect by putting eggs on the griddle, then covering them, and a couple of ice cubes, with a stainless lid. The ice melted and steamed the tops of the eggs while the bottoms cooked on the griddle -- he called them "eggs blindfolded." I'm glad to find that somebody else knows how to do this. The refried beans were wonderfully rich (praise the lard!), and the flour tortillas were handmade. At $3.95, this has to be among the best breakfast deals in town.

On a subsequent visit, I tried some of the lunch items. The hearty beef soup comes with large chunks of meat and big pieces of vegetables. You put the vegetables and meat on a side plate and then either eat them separately or cut them up and put them back in the soup. The meat was a little too gristly for me, but the broth and vegetables were passable.

I also ordered a Mexican-style sandwich called a torta. I asked the waitress which variety she recommended, and she pointed to the steak milanesa on the menu. I went along with her suggestion, which proved to be an unfortunate one. The breaded beef cutlet looked great on the well-dressed sandwich, but after taking my first bite, I knew I was in trouble.

When I tried to move my mouth away, the entire piece of meat came out of the sandwich. I attempted to remedy the problem by clamping down on the meat patty with the thumb and forefinger of each hand while biting with all my might and pulling with my hands, but to no avail. I would have had a better chance of biting through one of my sandals. So much for the lunch items.

I had wanted to write a review of Rico's soon after those early visits. But there was a paper sign in the window announcing their application for a license to serve alcohol. The process takes three months. And a review of the restaurant wouldn't be complete until I could report that they did indeed get the license. So I held off.

On returning from vacation last week, I called Rico's to see if their liquor license had gone into effect. It was about 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, May 14. The lady on the phone told me that Rico's would start serving alcohol for the first time that day at their Mother's Day brunch. I called some friends and told them to meet me there, then I hopped into the car.

Following the heroic example of Anderson Cooper, I decided that I must be right there, on the spot, the moment the icy slush began to flow. When I arrived, Alex the bartender told me the drinks were just about ready. I saw my opportunity to make my place in food-writing history, so I slipped him five bucks to give me the first margarita.

"¡Party en el patio!" hollered the musician who was playing keyboard and singing on the deck that afternoon. To go with my historic margarita, I got Rico's fantastic chilaquiles. Chilaquiles in Mexico are stale tortillas cooked in a sauce, sometimes with cheese and occasionally with eggs. The finished dish often resembles lasagna, with the tortillas replacing the noodles. The Tex-Mex dish called migas, on the other hand, is made with stale tortilla chips, onions, green peppers and scrambled eggs, often with cheese added.

Rico's chilaquiles are a hybrid of the two, made by frying stale tortillas until crisp and tossing them with all the same ingredients used in migas. The result, served with thick refried beans and handmade flour tortillas, is an outstanding tortilla-and-cheese scramble.

My buddies arrived midway through the momentous margarita and were treated to free margaritas of their own. Rico's was giving them away with every brunch order. One got machacado con huevo, a northern Mexican favorite made by tossing the dried beef called carne seca with scrambled eggs. It was a little dry, but that was easily remedied by a generous dose of salsa. The Mother's Day salsa was a hot green sauce that lacked salt and seasonings. I liked the orange one more.

My other companion got chicken enchiladas topped with a fried egg. She requested salsa verde, but when they didn't have any, she settled for the regular enchilada sauce, which turned out to be old-fashioned Tex-Mex chili gravy. The combination of fried egg, chicken enchiladas and thick brown gravy was sensational. The waitress called the dish enchiladas montadas ("mounted"). I've also heard that on some Mexican menus, chicken and eggs are known as "mother and child reunion." Whatever it's called, I'll order it again soon.

I also ordered a small bowl of menudo to see how Rico's dealt with that favorite hangover remedy. I hate menudo when it's chewy or stinky, but I love the soup when it's made with tender, long-cooked tripe. The tripe in Rico's soup fell apart with no chewing and had a surprisingly delicate flavor. The soup included lots of hominy and just enough orange grease. It was the best menudo I've had in years.

Last month I wrote about the differences between the cheap eats at the taqueria inside Matamoros Meat Market on Washington and the expensive fajitas and margaritas at El Tiempo next door. The new Rico's Triangle Restaurant might be described as a cross between the two. On the taqueria side, the food is cheap and you order in Spanish. But like a gringo joint, they have margaritas and fajitas and a lovely deck where you can sit outside and smoke cigarettes while you get tweaked.

A few more Mother's Day revelers began to arrive, and children in their church clothes began to run around the patio. There was a large table occupied by one man and three attractive young women with children -- his wife and two single mothers, I'd guess.

After the margaritas, the young moms were getting a little loose and the musician was egging them on to dance to a cumbia. One of the moms, a gorgeous, amply endowed blond, was having trouble keeping her strapless dress from falling too low. I had to leave, but I have no doubt Rico's new deck was the scene of some of the wildest Mother's Day action in the city.

As I headed home, I drove by Spanish Flowers, where people were waiting in long lines for tables. I wanted to stop and tell them about Rico's. A fun, funky new Mexican restaurant is major news for diners in any part of town. But when a place to eat cheap Mexican food and drink margaritas on a nice deck opens in a restaurant-deprived neighborhood near the Heights, it's the sort of breaking news that deserves special coverage. I'm glad I could be there for you.


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