Word hit the streets this week that Otilia's, the venerable restaurant on Long Point which has served old-fashioned interior Mexican cuisine for almost twenty years, was on the auction block. Restaurant, employees and recipes -- all reportedly for sale. And, predictably, longtime fans and patrons of the restaurant were horrified.
During a recent trip to Otilia's, I was stunned to see how much the old girl has changed in the last five years since I ate there. The restaurant used to routinely top critic's "best of" lists in Houston, and not just the "best Mexican food" lists. In 2002, Texas Monthly named Otilia's as one of the ten best restaurants in Houston, while USA Today named it as one of the ten best Mexican restaurants in the entire United States in 2001. But you don't hear much about Otilia's these days.
It turns out that there's a good reason for that. The Otilia's I recall from my youth was a tiny hole-in-the-wall in a bad part of town, turning out amazingly authentic Mexican food from inside an old converted Whataburger. There were only a few booths inside and you couldn't order unless you spoke Spanish or grunted and pointed at the menu, but the service was always cheerful and quick. The brightly colored mural on the back wall was a map of all the states in Mexico, which I sat and memorized as a child. My parents would take me on Saturday nights, where their creamy and spicy chile en nogada -- which was only available on the weekends -- was always the highlight of my month.
Otilia's was serving rich, vibrant, creative and authentic Mexican food long before places like Hugo's came to town, but they never left their location on Long Point. A few years back, they expanded their restaurant and added almost three times as much square footage and many more tables and booths. And the downhill slide into gentrification began.
As my most recent visit indicated, Otilia's has now become a bastion of the upper class yuppies who reside quietly in the nearby Memorial Villages and wash down their rice and beans with bottles of Merlot. The only Hispanic people inside the restaurant were waiting tables. The food has become bland, tasteless, trite. The menu still has some of the dishes that originally drew people to the place: intensely flavored cochinita pibil, dusky enchiladas mole and their famous posole. But it's become adulterated by the pervasive Tex-Mex dishes that are craved by both the new generation of Hispanics and boringly pedestrian white people alike.
I ordered my beloved chile en nogada -- which is now unenigmatically available every night of the week (although there are still dishes which are only available on Fridays through Sundays) -- and my dining partner ordered the pollo a la parilla. When I ordered tortillas de maiz with my meal, the grumpy waitress looked at me curiously. She did a sheer double-take when I ordered a glass of horchata para tomar. You get the feeling that not a lot of ordering is done in Spanish anymore, much less that authentic Spanish dishes are being ordered. The tables around us were munching happily on greasy-looking cheese enchiladas and fried shrimp.
The chile en nogada came out looking much as it used to -- a beautiful, plump poblano pepper stuffed with ground beef and white cheese, covered in a rich cream sauce with walnuts and pomegranate seeds scattered on top. But the dish itself has changed. It's overwhelmingly creamy now, like drinking an entire quart of half and half. You can barely taste the poblano pepper. And there's absolutely no spice to it at all. Whereas I recall cooing, "Pica! Pica!" in my youth while eating the chile, this one was as bland as a tin of housepaint. The pollo a la parilla was similarly disappointing, tasting like fajitas that someone cooked on a George Foreman grill.
There's a reason that I'm describing all of this in such despondent detail. As it turns out, Otilia's is not for sale. At least not in the sense that most people were originally thinking. In an effort to further slouch into mediocrity, it turns out instead that Otilia's is actively seeking to franchise their restaurant. A bright sign by the register blinked this advertisement every five seconds as we ate, while the waitresses sullenly confirmed this fact. One can only imagine who the first person will be to open an Otilia's franchise, and how stunningly and mournfully average it will be.
So this is how one of the best Mexican restaurants in town ends its run at the top, then. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.