"They could turn it into a game, like Where's Waldo?" Ms. W suggests as she sips her margarita. "See how many monkeys you can find. Kids would love it!" We are discussing the monkey problem at Tony Vallone's new Mexican restaurant, Los Tonyos Cantina, which is located in the noisy, high-ceilinged Shepherd Drive space that Fox Diner last occupied.
Chango, which means "monkey" or "ape" in Spanish, was the name the legendary Houston restaurateur originally had in mind for his first Mexican eatery, but it turned out there were already Mexican restaurants of that name in other Texas cities. So, at the last minute, the name was changed to Los Tonyos. Which would have been fine -- if the entire restaurant weren't covered with monkeys.
"There are ten monkeys on the menu alone," observes Ms. W, a noted local wiseass. The ubiquitous trademark primate, who looks like Curious George in a sombrero, wouldn't be so bad on his own. But when you combine the cartoon monkey with the movie-theater starburst carpeting, the gaudy piñatas and the Hawaiian shirt uniforms of the waitstaff, you end up with a weird ambience -- sort of an adult Chuck E. Cheese's with tacos instead of pizza.
But hey, the margaritas are strong, the chips are crunchy, and if monkeys and Hawaiian shirts aren't particularly evocative of Mexico, that's okay, because neither is the cooking. Los Tonyos is meant to be fun and healthy, not authentic.
On our first visit, we started with some unexciting ceviche-filled tortilla shells. Ms. W ordered a frozen margarita, and I asked for a shot of Hornitos with a sangrita, the traditional Mexican tequila chaser. The waitress said they didn't have "sangria" (the wine and fruit mixture), so I tried the bartender. I was impressed that the young crewcut knew what sangrita was and even offered to try to make some. The chaser, made with chiles, orange juice, lime juice and sometimes pomegranate juice, should be bright red and quite piquant. The bartender kindly brought me a shot of Bloody Mary mix with lime juice added. It's the thought that counts. Note to self: Better stick with the basics here.
I tried an enchilada plate. You can mix and match, so I got two different kinds. The chicken verde enchilada came with plain shredded chicken and a passable tomatillo sauce; the cheese enchilada came with melted cheddar and a red sauce that tasted like cream of tomato soup. The rice and beans were fine, but everything was unconnected. If you're used to an enchilada plate overflowing with sauce, topped with cheese and baked together in the classic Tex-Mex style, this one will disappoint you.
Los Tonyos serves its food on the same kind of oversize Fiestaware platters that they use at Pappasito's Cantina. But while Pappasito's fills the platter with rice and beans and lettuce to make the portions look huge, Los Tonyos arranges the items at some remove from one another on the brightly colored plate, making the dish look oddly incomplete.
Ms. W ordered a combination plate called Los Cabos, comprising a fish taco, a shrimp taco and an enchilada, with rice and beans on the side. The shrimp taco -- large tasty sautéed shrimp with lettuce and tomatoes served on a soft tortilla -- was simple, but with enough hot sauce you could make it interesting. The green enchilada was just like mine. And, for reasons that I couldn't put my finger on, the fish taco was bland and gloppy.
On my second visit, I had both the best and the worst things I've eaten at Los Tonyos. The best was the cabrito taco plate: two freshly made flour tortillas filled with stewed goat meat and served with guacamole and pico de gallo on the side. The tortillas were hot off the griddle, the meat was soft as butter and stewed in a sublime tomato and chile sauce, and the fresh salsa added a lovely bite. The guacamole was dominated by preserved avocado puree, but that's normal during the time of year when avocados are expensive.
My lunch partner got the sopes plate, so I traded her one cabrito taco for one of the round boats of tortilla dough. The dough is typically filled and fried fresh when you order it. Gorditas Aguascalientes on Bissonnet makes outstanding sopes, which they fill with beans and cheese. I had just had an order of sopesitas, or little sopes, stuffed with such upscale goodies as duck in mole and chicken in verde sauce, at Hugo's a few days before. I was quite impressed to see such an esoteric and authentic Mexican dish on Los Tonyos' lunch menu.
I wasn't nearly so impressed when I started eating it. The filling was simple refried beans and picadillo, with Mexican cheese and cilantro on top -- nothing wrong with that. But there was a horrible, watery taste to the whole thing. I sat there picking my sope apart trying to figure out where the water was coming from.
Eventually, I asked the waiter if the tortilla dough used to make the sope had been boiled or steamed rather than fried. He went to the kitchen, came back and said, "Yes, it's tortilla dough."
I looked a little disgusted by this nonresponse, but I was shocked at what he said next. "I'm sorry, I tried to find out how they cooked it, but they just laughed at me." I had to feel sorry for the guy.
As I drove out of the parking lot, I noticed one of Los Tonyos' Mexican chefs getting into his car. I stopped and struck up a conversation with him. After a few pleasantries, I got to the point: "Are the sopes steamed?" I asked him in broken Spanish.
"Sí, con vapor," he chuckled.
"But aren't sopes supposed to be fried?" I asked him.
"Fried fish, fried tortilla, too much fried," the chef said, succinctly explaining the philosophy of the Los Tonyos kitchen. The chefs may be from Mexico, but the recipes aren't. Evidently, Los Tonyos Cantina has decided to serve a lighter, healthier version of Mexican food. That's why the fish taco was so gloppy, I realized as I drove away. They're not crisping the tortillas on a griddle with oil; they're steaming them. Just what the world's been waiting for: steamed tacos.
There's an hour-and-15-minute wait on the Saturday night of our third visit, and the noise level in the cavernous space is deafening. So Ms. W and I walk across the street and browse at Bookstop; then we go to Cactus Music & Video and buy some CDs. And we still have a 15-minute wait when we get back. We order a couple of frozen margaritas and stand around observing the squeaky-clean crowd: lots of belly button-flashing bleached blonds with muscular guys in expensive Italian golf shirts, plenty of cologne and short haircuts moussed to stand up at odd angles.
Ms. W's usually sanguine attitude is giving way to impatience by the time we are seated. It takes another five minutes to get any service, and in the roaring cacophony of the tightly packed dining room, we can't hear each other without shouting. When the entire waitstaff assembles to sing "Happy Birthday" in Spanish to the table next to us, I fear that Ms. W will grab a stick and start swinging at the piñatas.
For our entrées, I order fajitas, and she requests the chuletas verde. There's a little cart being pushed from table to table, where the waiters are preparing guacamole. Since the last guacamole I ate here was made with preserved puree, I figure it might be a good idea to order some fresh-made for our appetizer. Our waiter pushes the cart up to the table and begins his elaborate presentation. He smushes the tomato, onion and lime together in the bottom of the bowl with a flourish, as if he were making a Caesar salad. Then he sprinkles in some cilantro. We're enjoying the show. Tableside service is a lost art that needs to be revived, I muse to myself. Suddenly, things turn ugly.
The waiter can barely get his knife through the avocados. Once he has the skins off, he attempts to hack the green meat away from the pit. But these avocados are nowhere close to ripe, so he goes off to the kitchen and returns with several more. By scraping parts off four unripe avocados, he eventually accumulates enough flesh in the bowl. This he chops vigorously until it somewhat resembles guacamole. It tastes better than I thought it would, but of course there are large chunks of hard avocado all through it. Realizing what a mess he's made, the waiter apologizes and kindly volunteers to take the appetizer off our bill.
Our entrées arrive and we dig in. There is way more fajita meat than I can eat. The extremely tender slices of beef have a hint of soy from the marinade and a nice char from the grill. They are presented over a pile of caramelized onions on the traditional iron comal. With the fresh flour tortillas and the free guacamole, they make quite a feast.
Ms. W's three pork chops are thin with black char marks from the grill. They come with the same tomatillo sauce that is served with the green enchiladas. The chops in Mexico are always this thin, so you can't complain they aren't authentic. Some of the chops are juicier than others, but overall the meat is pretty good. The cheese tamale, on the other hand, has gotten cold. The dough is stiff and dry, and the cheese inside, which seems to be Oaxacan string cheese, has turned hard and rubbery.
Throughout the rest of the dinner, the guacamole cart, smeared with green carnage and littered with hacked-apart half-avocados, remains parked by our side. The smiling, bespectacled maître d', who usually wears a tuxedo at Tony's, flits about the restaurant fawning over his River Oaks regulars. The social butterfly stops by our table just long enough to dump several empty margarita glasses and some wadded-up cocktail napkins into the bowl our guacamole was made in, thus turning the unappetizing tableside cart into an even more disgusting tableside bus tray. We skip dessert.
If fate should take you to Los Tonyos, I recommend that you try the goat tacos at lunchtime, the fajitas at dinner, avoid the tableside guacamole at all costs, and amuse disgruntled dates and fidgety children by encouraging them to count all the monkeys. (Ms. W holds the current record at 36.) Did I mention that the margaritas are top-notch? They also dampen the acoustic overload almost as well as earplugs.
If you're on a diet that calls for steamed starches, you might try the sopes or fish tacos. The healthy version of these Mexican classics might not be to my taste, but I'm sure Los Tonyos Cantina is doing an excellent business with them. Then again, I suspect Tony Vallone could serve Alpo straight out of the can and the "San Phillipy" set would swear it was the best carne guisada they'd ever eaten.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.