When Tony recognizes my celebrity dining partners, he bounds over to our table and starts pumping their hands. Since I am reviewing anonymously, they discreetly fail to introduce me. I smile and tell Tony what a great restaurant he's got.
When I landed this job, I asked all my friends for help. Although I have been writing about food in Texas for a long time, I needed some help getting to know Houston's restaurant scene. Among the civic-minded tour guides who stepped forward to assist me were the famous pair I'm eating dinner with tonight. Perhaps you've heard of the Art Guys. Maybe you remember their 1,000 Coats of Paint billboard on the West Loop or the suits they sold advertising space on and wore for a year. Maybe you love them, or maybe you reach for a grain of salt the minute you hear their names. Dave Hickey, the former editor of Art in America magazine, warns that the Art Guys have "an alien edge that might be construed as being, well how can I put this a little contemptuous?"
To put it bluntly, Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing, a.k.a. the Art Guys, like to mess with people's heads. I wondered if they'd wear their advertising suits to dinner at Tony's or if they had some weird food-fight performance piece planned. But they turned out to be two very nice guys who really wanted to show me around the Space City they knew and loved.
Tony's Mexican Restaurant
2222 Ella Boulevard
"Houston is an unsettled, gregarious, multidimensional mess," Michael says. "It's so interesting." We sit back in our booth and look out over the crowd. The restaurant seems to emphasize his point. Tony's tacky decor is interesting in a multidimensional sort of way. Is it the floral carpet and loud avocado, blue and canary vinyl tablecloths that give Tony's such a festive air? Or is it the accent pieces, like the big round Mexican sombreros that festoon the curved brick archways that lead from one dining room to the other? The oversize menu features a huge color photo of a gaudy statue called the Monument to the Flag in Tony's hometown of Zacatecas, Mexico.
Oh, you thought we were talking about that Tony's.
No, the Tony's where the Art Guys hang out is a Mexican restaurant at 23rd and Ella. From what the Art Guys tell me, great restaurants in Houston are a dime a dozen, but a decent Tex-Mex restaurant near the Heights is a major discovery. Hey, the chips are crispy, the hot sauces are homemade and the margaritas on the rocks are very tasty, so I'm happy. We drain the first round and escalate to a pitcher.
I order the Botana Mixta ($7.95), a platter of assorted appetizers recommended for two people. The hand-formed botanas, two chicken taquitos fried crispy in flour tortilla wrappers, and a big cheesy quesadilla cut in two pieces make excellent dunking material with Tony's two hot sauces. The salsa roja is a mellow-flavored, smooth orange puree of roasted tomatoes and just a hint of heat, while the salsa picosa is a hot, chunky tomato-and-jalapeño sauce with lots of cilantro.
Also on the platter are two stuffed jalapeños and two breaded shrimp, which I recognize as frozen convenience products. When I mention that these prebreaded products are very popular in the food-service industry because they go straight from the deep freezer to the deep fryer, with no muss and no fuss, the Art Guys look at me strangely. The frozen breaded shrimp is burned, and the tasteless filling inside the jalapeño is pure-as-the-driven-snow cream cheese. So what else can I say besides this: Skip the Mixta and just order the outstanding housemade quesadillas ($7.50), which come with guacamole and sour cream and your choice of beef or chicken.
"What do you think the story is with this guacamole?" I ask.
"It's fresh," says Jack firmly.
"I doubt it," I say skeptically. "It's way too smooth and way too green."
I figure Tony's is using some prepackaged avocado pulp in the guacamole. This is standard procedure in Tex-Mex restaurants when the price of Haas avocados climbs too high. The pulp is good stuff; I had a bag in my deep freeze at home last month. Restaurants will often blend in fresh avocados to improve the look and texture. I don't think there's anything wrong with a Mexican restaurant using a little avocado pulp in the guacamole. But Jack is aghast. He is getting pissed at me for impugning the integrity of the restaurant. It's touching really, but not exactly what I expected.
I think of the Art Guys as brilliant, cutting-edge performance artists who pulled the pretentious facade off the fine arts scene and showed us that, at its core, art is as much about marketing as meaning. And now, these same two intellectual terrorists are sitting here looking utterly horrified that I might tell the world their favorite Mexican restaurant uses a little prepackaged avocado pulp in the guacamole. Go figure.
For dinner I ordered Tony's Combo ($7.95), which consisted of one taco al carbon and one chicken enchilada on a big faux Fiestaware oval plate heaped with lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole, rice and refrieds. The big fat taco consisted of well-done beef fajita meat wrapped in a flour tortilla. I doused it liberally with the cilantro hot sauce and stuffed some lettuce, tomato and guacamole in for good measure. The chicken enchilada was made with a well-oiled corn tortilla that sank luxuriantly into a pool of mild chili sauce and old-fashioned yellow cheese. I enjoyed both of these Tex-Mex standards for reasons that transcend the language of culinary criticism and enter the realm of psychoanalysis. (They made me think of Mom's Frito pie.)
The Art Guys ordered Pollo a la Parilla ($8.95) and Sizzling Chicken Fajitas ($9.95). On the surface of it, the grilled chicken and chicken fajitas would appear to be exactly the same thing. But in fact, Michael's grilled chicken was marinated breast meat, and it had a softer texture. Jack's chicken fajita strips were firmer and drier. "But it's a nice sort of dry," said Jack defensively.
Like two thirds of the people I know, Jack is on a high-protein diet. Tex-Mex food, with the standard sides of refried beans, rice and tortillas, seems like an odd choice for high-protein eaters. But since the beef and chicken fajitas come on a hot comal with onions and peppers and condiments on the side, they are a perfect order for someone on a high-protein diet.
I went back to Tony's with my daughters and tried the chili rellenos ($8.95) and the carne guisada ($7.50). The roasted poblano chili was stuffed with taco meat and served in a tomato sauce topped with too much cheese. The carne guisada was made with skirt steak, which is not a very good choice for stewed beef. Unlike chuck or rump, fajita meat, even when cooked long and slow, doesn't get very tender. I made a third trip to Tony's to speak with owner Tony Vega and take a tour of the kitchen. I promised Jack I would make sure Tony's used avocado pulp in the guacamole before I said so in print.
"Are you going Dumpster diving?" he asked. Well, sort of. When I showed up at Tony's at nine-thirty one weekday morning, I couldn't help but notice the empty California Haas avocado cartons in the trash heap out back. I asked Tony what the proportion was of fresh avocado to pulp in his guacamole. He said about half and half right now, but it changes with the price of avocados. I also asked Tony if he had noticed any change in his sales of high-protein items. He said the fajita sales were good, but the biggest change he noted was that people were ordering the fat-free whole cooked beans instead of the refrieds.
Tony Vega may not be Tony Vallone, but he's doing all right. This is Tony's eighth year in business. He has expanded several times, but even with the addition of more and more tables, the place is always packed. People love the place for reasons that transcend culinary excellence -- like its location.
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If Tony's wasn't what I expected, neither were the Art Guys. Contemptuous? Well, maybe in the art world, but I was astonished by their bighearted innocence. I suppose everybody in Texas gets sentimental when the subject is their favorite Mexican restaurant. I ended up feeling guilty about ruining their evening with my cynicism. It made me remember what a bore restaurant reviewers are.
Dining out is a little like going to the theater or the movies -- enjoying yourself often requires a willful suspension of disbelief. Critics are the oafs who ruin things by pointing out that Peter Pan is a girl and that it only looks like she's flying, when she's actually suspended by invisible wires.
You will like Tony's because it's an unpretentious, family-run place, because of the casually dressed, hip young crowd that hangs out there, because the margaritas on the rocks aren't too sweet, and because if you close your eyes, and clap three times, the food is just what you want.
Tony's Mexican Restaurant, 2222 Ella Boulevard, (713)862-6516.