Places Like Los Dos Amigos Are Disappearing On Washington
My carnitas dinner came to the table on a sizzling comal at Los Dos Amigos, a homey old Tex-Mex joint on Washington Avenue. You see a lot of chicken and beef fajitas served with sautéed onions and peppers on a flat cast-iron skillet, but this was the first time I had seen carnitas served that way. It's a nice idea.
And if you ask me, the fried pork chunks taste a lot better on hot-off-the-griddle flour tortillas with garlicky guacamole, caramelized grilled vegetables and piquant green salsa than chewy beef or dried-out chicken strips. I'm not saying I'm swearing off of beef skirt, but I do think carnitas make an excellent variation on the old sizzling comal theme. We also sampled some fajitadillas, beef fajitas cooked into a quesadilla, cut into six wedges and served with creamy refried beans and sour cream.
I was surprised by how empty the restaurant was at seven o'clock in the evening. The place had been packed on my previous breakfast and lunch visits. Not that it takes much of a crowd to fill the tiny space. There are half a dozen tables covered in plastic tablecloths, several booths along the wall and a six-seat Formica counter in the L-shaped dining room.
They don't serve frozen margaritas at Los Dos Amigos, and there isn't any beer either, which is probably why we had the tiny restaurant pretty much to ourselves at dinnertime. When we walked out to our car afterwards, I noticed that the parking lot two doors down the street at El Tiempo, the popular fajita and margarita restaurant run by Mama Ninfa's family, was overflowing. El Tiempo is a great restaurant, and they are justly proud of their family's place in Houston Tex-Mex history.
Los Dos Amigos, which opened 32 years ago, has a lot of history behind it, too. But the humble eatery serves an older variety of home-cooked Tex-Mex geared to a Hispanic audience. The rapid gentrification of Washington Avenue is turning restaurants like Los Dos Amigos into relics.
When Los Dos Amigos first opened 32 years ago, the sign above the building was red. The color has washed away over the years, and now you can barely read the sign. Los Dos Amigos is one of many restaurants on Washington Avenue that were built to serve the nearby Mexican barrio, but the neighborhood has changed.
In the summer of 2000, I ate my first huarache (an oversize handmade tortilla piled high with toppings) at La Bamba Meat Market at 4115 Washington. The restaurant was the subject of one of my earliest reviews for the Houston Press. I was charmed by the Washington Avenue neighborhood. And I was sad to see La Bamba close its doors a few years later.
Then, in 2006, I wrote about the odd combination of old Mexican meat markets like Matamoros and upscale wine bars like Cova that could be found on opposite corners of Washington Avenue ["Where Carnitas Meet Foie Gras," March 16, 2006]. I suppose I should have anticipated that the blend of old and new wouldn't last forever. Matamoros Meat Market was taken over by El Tiempo late last year and given a face lift.
Catalan, Max's Wine Dive, Cova, Soma, El Tiempo, Molina's — the list of new restaurants on Washington Avenue goes on and on. And there are some exciting new projects on the drawing boards. This is fast becoming our most vibrant dining district, and I count myself a denizen. I only wish we could hang on to some of the old flavor of Washington Avenue while we enjoy the new stuff.
Earlier this month, the 40-year-old family-run Guadalajara Bakery and Tacos at 4003 Washington Avenue announced it was closing. The old building will be torn down to make way for new development. And the Chavez family has said they won't be reopening in another location.
You have to wonder how long Los Dos Amigos, Laredo Taqueria and the other old-fashioned Mexican restaurants on Washington are going to be around.
On Saturday mornings around nine, the waitresses push a couple of tables together in the front part of Los Dos Amigos to make room for the "Old Gringos," a bunch of gray-haired Americanos in golf shirts who settle their sports bets and tell tall tales over coffee and huevos rancheros. Don't go with a hangover — there's a lot of laughter at that early hour.
Breakfast at Los Dos Amigos features hand-cut potatoes, homemade flour tortillas and silky refried beans. My daughter loves the huevos con papas. She prefers her eggs over easy, and she likes to dip her home fries in the refried beans. Don't embarrass yourself by asking if the tortillas and beans are made with lard. Of course they are.
Breakfast tacos are 99 cents, and the breakfast specials are $3.25 until ten o'clock. Last time I ate breakfast there, I got three enchiladas topped with two fried eggs and raw onions for $7.25. The eggs on enchiladas aren't on the breakfast menu; they're listed with the entrées. But if you ask me, it's the desayuno de campeones.
For lunch, I usually get the $5.75 daily special. On Wednesdays, it's enchiladas suizas, three chicken enchiladas in a white cheese-and-sour cream sauce with beans and rice. I don't recommend the "summer dinner" or the combo plates, which are served with crispy tacos or chalupas — the tacos are made with preformed tortilla shells, and they taste like cardboard. But that's hardly a problem that's unique to Los Dos Amigos.
Looking around the restaurant last Wednesday, I was amused to see Armando Palacios eating eggs with chorizo and potatoes for lunch. Palacios is the owner of Armando's Restaurant in River Oaks, the most elegant Tex-Mex restaurant in town. It's good to see that his tastes in Tex-Mex are as all-inclusive as mine.
"Armando has been eating at Los Dos Amigos for years," his wife told me on the phone. "It's our favorite little dump."
Restaurants open and close all the time, and that's just the way it is. But the shuttering of 60-year-old Felix on Westheimer and 40-year-old Guadalajara Bakery and Tacos on Washington within a few weeks of each other has sent some fans of old-time Tex-Mex into a funk of weepy nostalgia.
I agree that a Tex-Mex dive is a terrible thing to waste. But Felix and Guadalajara Bakery were both running in the red, so what do you expect? "Use it or lose it," as they say. If you want to save your favorite old Tex-Mex haunt, I suggest you go there soon and treat all your friends.
And if you don't have a favorite Tex-Mex dive, then visit Los Dos Amigos for breakfast or lunch and see what you've been missing.
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