Tex-Mex Tyranny

Until I dined at Lupe Tortilla's, I'd never encountered a restaurant with a rulebook. It's described as "frequently asked questions," but make no mistake: These are rules and they will be enforced. No substitutions. No incomplete parties. No separate checks. No reservations. No happy hour. No cooking to order. No credit cards at the bar. The book is placed on every table for diners to study -- and there's plenty of time to do so while you wait for your entrees. I live in fear of the pop quiz that must someday come -- will failure consign me to Lupe's "steenkin leetle" version of dishwashing hell?

Perhaps Lupe's guests should publish their own reciprocal manifesto. Banned would be hour-plus waits for a party of four, lamp-top sombreros dangling at eye-level, moth-eaten Spanglish parodies not seen since the Eisenhower era and food-service fascism in any form.

Or, of course, you could just take your business elsewhere. If you do, though, you'll miss out on sizzling platters of salty beef fajitas with charcoaled green onions and ice-cold margaritas made with freshly squeezed lime. Enchiladas thickly blanketed with chewy Monterey Jack cheese. Grilled mahi-mahi wrapped in fresh corn tortillas.

Oops, I just rechecked the rulebook. Lupe's Law No. 7 clearly states that the fajitas are not salty. It's just that the lime juice in the marinade makes you think they're salty. So $19.95 will get you a full pound of only seemingly salty but wonderfully tender grilled meat, either beef or chicken; two people who ask nicely will be allowed to mix the plate half-and-half. (Combination is prohibited for single orders, and, oddly enough, this rule isn't in the book or on the menu, nor could I find documentation of the half-order price of $9.50. Go figure.)

Fajita orders come with a half-dozen thin, tender flour tortillas, each big as a dinner plate and certainly among the best in town, buttery rich guacamole and a mild-mannered pico de gallo, but no rice or beans (each $1.25 extra). While the chewy, slightly nutty-flavored rice is worth the à la carte charge, the beans are not. Lupe's frijoles are disappointingly bland across the board, from the free cup of frijoles charros that arrives with the chips (er, "cheeps") to the tasteless smear hidden in the nachos and on the dinner plates.

While incoming cast-iron platters of fajitas land thick and fast on Lupe's tables, wafting aromatic contrails of grilled beef, the menu identifies their most popular dish as "Cheekin Lupe" ($7.95). This dish sounds like a yawn -- a pair of chicken breasts with jack cheese and a basic pico de gallo, ho hum -- but is actually quite good, saved by a marinade that keeps the chicken moist and flavorful. By contrast, I've found the "Cheekin Leetle" chicken breast ($6.95) overly dry, despite the similar lime-and-pepper marinade; the accompanying ranchera gravy isn't any help, as it bears an unfortunate resemblance to tinny TV dinner sauces. Maybe size does matter: After all, Cheekin Leetle "es preety leetle," according to its smarmy description, and so is too easily overcooked.

The fajitas and the Cheekin Lupe are readily available on the regular menu, but I've had even better luck with the chalkboard specials. These off-the-menu items are the brainchild of Judson Holt, 23, son of Lupe's owners, Stan and Audrey Holt, and the general manager of the new store. It's worth cruising through the parking lot to get a glimpse of the chalkboard -- and simultaneously estimate the waiting time for a table -- before committing to a meal. Recurring favorites of mine are the chicken enchiladas with ancho mole, featuring moist shredded chicken in a resonant, smoky red mole sauce ($7.95), and the grilled fish tacos ($6.95), which on a recent expedition used high-end mahi mahi. The fish is heavily blackened on the grill, then heaped with an attractive mini-salad of shredded cabbage, lettuce leaves and slivers of red bell pepper, all wrapped in fresh corn tortillas as tasty as their bigger flour brethren. The chunks of grilled fish are moistened with a light, savory roasted green chile mayonnaise, which is all they need; the additional cup of roasted red jalapeno sauce served for dipping is a timid afterthought safely ignored.

When Lupe Tortilla's first opened inside the Loop, I wondered if the new store would be as wildly popular as the west Houston original, said to serve 9,000 meals per week. The Holt family has faithfully duplicated its successful recipe, right down to the original restaurant's tin roof, porch rockers and, of course, their trademark sandbox. Too big to be called a sand "box," it's really a fenced sandy play yard, a guaranteed kid magnet, with bleacher seating for weary parents conveniently close to the bar and outside-access restrooms. (And its own set of posted rules, including "No Dinks" and "No Yuppies.") Lupe's fresh lime margaritas are the potent parent trap; both the frozen and on-the-rocks versions are excellent. I particularly like the considerate way margaritas are served on the rocks: the generously sized cocktail comes in its own carafe alongside a separate, hefty glass of ice, keeping watery dilution to a minimum.

Inside, the modest square footage is subdivided into even smaller dining rooms of three or four tables each. The good news is that this arrangement cuts the clamor some and lends an intimacy not often found in Tex-Mex restaurants. The bad news is that once a high chair or baby carrier has been hiked into position at each small table, the servers can barely navigate with their heavily laden trays. Better seating is available on the outside deck, where there seems to be a tad more room to scoot your chair back, but beware of those dangling sombreros on each light fixture at tables for two. As annoying as a too-tall centerpiece, the silly hats hang right at eye level, causing dinner partners to alternately crane and duck to converse. While trying to move the darn thing out of my face on a recent visit, though, I accidentally discovered that each wall lamp is actually a touch-activated three-way mood lamp! Cool.

So, is Lupe's No. 2 as popular with inner-Loopers as outers? Nick Incrapera, the assistant general manager of the sequel store, hesitates to share hard numbers but happily points out that the flow of customers is steadily increasing and that their "expectations have definitely been exceeded." My own observation has been that Lupe's seats are chock full every day, with suits from nearby Greenway Plaza at lunch, and nattily attired West U family groups at dinner. This despite the fact that the restaurant is set back a discreet distance from the feeder frontage, and sports only a pair of understated, unlighted signs -- one reading "Lupe Tortilla's Summer 1998."

"Um, we're working on getting that sign replaced," says Incrapera. "It's concreted into the ground." Once they do, look out: With its relentlessly family-oriented values and iron-clad, by-the-book consistency, Lupe Tortilla's could well be the Ninfa's of the '90s.

Lupe Tortilla's, 2414 Southwest Freeway, 522-4420


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