Wrestling with Gourmet Tex-Mex
The "enchiladas Anaya's" at the new Cyclone Anaya's on Durham come smothered in a fabulous sauce of ancho chiles, slow-cooked onions and sautéed mushrooms. I can't say I've ever eaten mushroom enchilada sauce before, but the concept is brilliant -- and so is the flavor.
The two oversize enchiladas are stuffed with your choice of broiled, marinated chicken or fajita beef, or one of each. I got both, and I'd give a slight edge to the beef, though I really liked the chicken, too.
The menu said these "gourmet enchiladas" came rolled in red tortillas, and I was disappointed when mine were served with regular-colored tortillas instead. In the old days, many Tex-Mex restaurants used red tortillas for enchiladas, which made the "hot plate" of yesteryear much more festive-looking than the modern brown-on-brown combo platter. The red dye No. 3 scare of the late '80s killed the tradition. Even though safer dyes have since been invented, red tortillas have become rare.
I did see some bright red and green fried tortilla strips in the migas at Cyclone Anaya's on a Sunday-morning visit, however. Froot Loops have got nothing on this dish in the brightly colored breakfast department. I'm hoping this Cyclone Anaya's is going to revive a lot of colorful old Tex-Mex traditions, since the restaurant is a colorful old tradition itself.
The original Cyclone Anaya's was an incredibly popular Tex-Mex joint a little farther down Durham toward Washington Avenue. It was opened in the '60s by a professional wrestler who fought under the name Cyclone Anaya. His wife, Carolina Anaya, was a wonderful Tex-Mex cook and a former beauty pageant contestant.
The new Durham location revives an old Houston tradition. The restaurant is beautifully designed with a brick interior and retro lighting fixtures. Oversize booths line the walls, all of which are decorated with posters of Cyclone Anaya posing in his wrestling garb, and wrestling posters and newspaper stories chronicling his bouts.
Cyclone was born Jesus Becerra Valencia. He won a wrestling medal for Mexico in the Pan American Games. Borrowing the family name Anaya from his mother's side, he fought as a professional under the name Apollo Anaya in Mexico City. He was lured to Chicago in the '30s, where promoters changed his name again, this time from Apollo to Cyclone.
When an injury ended his career in the ring, he and Carolina opened Cyclone Anaya's near the corner of Durham and Washington in 1961. It was among the best-loved Tex-Mex restaurants in Houston until the neighborhood slumped. The restaurant closed in 1994.
Cyclone Anaya, known to his friends as Chuy, had two sons, Chuy Jr. and Ricardo. Chuy Jr. runs the restaurant called Terlingua Texas Border Cafe at Studemont and Washington, a few blocks away (see "Cyclone Season," by Robb Walsh, July 7). Ricardo and Carolina own the new Cyclone Anaya's, as well as the one on Woodway. They plan to open a third location on West Gray.
It's good to see an old favorite make a comeback -- especially one that was as wild as Cyclone Anaya's. One of the most colorful traditions at the old place was a margarita that was prepared in your mouth. You had to turn around and face away from the bar, then bend over backward until the bartender could stuff your face with ice cubes and pour in the tequila and mixers.
The menu lists margarita specials, but there's no mention of mouth margaritas, and oddly, none of the prices are shown. "How much do the margarita specials cost?" I asked the bartender, who introduced himself as Mike.
"They're all different prices; which one do you want?" Mike asked. So I started naming margarita after margarita and making him look them up. I wasn't trying to be a dick. How am I supposed to know which one I want if I can't compare prices?
To shut me up, Mike finally said they run from $8.50 to $12. Shots of tequila are $7.50. No wonder they don't print the prices. A lot of people would get up and leave.
"So, Mike, do you make the margaritas in people's mouths?" my dining companion asked. We were willing to do the contortions -- for old time's sake. But Mike looked at us like we were crazy.
"They used to do that at the old place, but no, we don't do that here," he told us.
I think the new Cyclone Anaya's aspires to a higher place in society than its wild and woolly predecessor. And I'm not sure the original fun-loving Cyclone would approve.
The best food I sampled at Cyclone Anaya's was generally the simplest. The guacamole was freshly made and pleasantly chunky. The nachos were each carefully made by hand. The chile con queso was silky and spicy with that incomparable American cheese flavor. And the ceviche, made with fish and shrimp chunks, garnished with avocado slices and served in a big martini glass, was spectacular.
Our favorite plates included "Betsy's tamales," three big thick homemade tamales with lots of meat in the filling, topped with chili con carne, cheese and raw onion with rice and beans on the side. I also liked the carne asada a la Tampiqueña, which features fajita meat tossed with roasted peppers, onions and mushrooms served on a plate with an enchilada, some guacamole, rice and your choice of charro beans or refrieds.
All of my dining companions preferred the charro beans over the refritos at Cyclone Anaya's, but although I like the soupy beans just fine, I am madly, passionately in love with the stupendously creamy refrieds. "Don't you think they went a little overboard on the lard?" a friend of mine said when he tried a bite of mine.
"Overboard? Lard?" I pretended not to understand. Let me eat my creamy frijoles in peace, please. He was eating a roasted chicken chile relleno, which is made with an unbattered roasted poblano. Sure, it sounds like a prudent, low-cholesterol dinner, but in fact it comes swathed in a thick blanket of melted cheese. Lard is better for you than butter or cheese, I might have begun my nutrition lecture, but I held my fat-coated tongue. (So to speak.)
The cheese enchiladas at Cyclone Anaya's aren't very good. The chili gravy is bland and flavorless. Chuy Jr. serves much better cheese enchiladas over at Terlingua. And although the red salsa at Cyclone's is excellent, Terlingua has a more interesting assortment of salsas as well.
Both of the Anaya brothers make the mistake of trying to get beyond the good old-fashioned Tex-Mex that made their family famous, both in the upscale decor and ambitious menus of their respective restaurants. At Terlingua, the steaks, shrimp and Cajun dishes are the worst things on the menu, while the cheese enchiladas and the hamburgers are very good. At Cyclone Anaya's, the dishes to avoid are things you might have encountered in Southwestern cuisine restaurants, like lobster enchiladas.
The old Southwestern standby is served here with gummy, tasteless lobster meat rolled in flour tortillas, then topped with an indifferent white sauce and gloppy cheese. If the lobster enchiladas are short on flavor, the camarones a la parrilla err in the opposite extreme. Jumbo shrimp are stuffed with jalapeños and Mexican cheese and then wrapped in bacon and grilled.
"You can't taste the shrimp," the guy who ordered them complained as he passed one to me. I had to agree.
The costillas, a rack of baby back ribs coated with a sweet barbecue sauce, looked seductively tender. In fact, they were disgustingly mushy. They tasted like they'd been steamed for hours -- or days.
All of the upscale stuff was ordered at one dinner that I shared with five friends. Disgruntled, four of us sat there afterward looking at the remains of our lobster enchiladas, cheesy shrimp with bacon and squishy ribs. The lucky pair who ordered the carne asada and a combination plate didn't share our pain.
What were we thinking? Why did we go to a Tex-Mex restaurant and order all this over-the-top stuff to begin with? Why didn't we stick with chili-topped tamales, guacamole and the combination plates Cyclone Anaya's does best?
I suppose we were seduced into thinking that the perfectly executed decor, the potent frozen margaritas and the nostalgic focus inspired by the portraits of the professional wrestler meant we couldn't go wrong no matter what we ordered.
Cyclone Anaya's is a wonderful place to visit, but when you go, don't make the same mistake. As my old buddy New Orleans food writer Pableaux Johnson always says, "Never order steak at the pancake house." And as I will henceforward always say, "When you're in a Tex-Mex restaurant, stick with the Tex-Mex."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.