Gooey cheese enchiladas topped with two fried eggs — that's my favorite Tex-Mex breakfast. I usually have to beg the waiter to go ask the kitchen if they will make it. So I was delighted to see old-time "breakfast enchiladas" on the menu at Mi Sombrero, a vintage Tex-Mex eatery at North Shepherd and 34th St.
As soon as I slid into the overstuffed booth and leaned my elbows on the worn plastic tablecloth at this old joint, I felt at home. With its colorful serape curtains, hanging sombreros and huge murals of Mexican village scenes, Mi Sombrero oozes old-fashioned Tex-Mex atmosphere. I especially love the nostalgic lettering on the window that reads: "Mexican and American Food." The place was founded in 1978, so it's celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
The restaurant was three-quarters full on that Saturday morning, and most of the patrons appeared to be Mexican-Americans. I noticed that a lot of people were eating soup for breakfast. Mi Sombrero serves the hearty Mexican beef soup called caldo de res on weekend mornings along with the hangover cure in a bowl known as menudo.
Breakfast may be the best time to eat at Mi Sombrero. On weekends, it's served all day. And the extensive menu includes traditional Tex-Mex favorites like huevos rancheros as well as American standards like bacon and eggs. There's also hearty stuff like steak and eggs which you can get Mexican-style with refried beans or gringo-style with home fries. Go for both.
The fried potatoes here are spectacular. Breakfast home fries are hand-cut and freshly fried, and so are the ones that come with dinner.
While I ate my breakfast, I watched Mi Sombrero's manager carry several large boxes sealed with aluminum foil out to somebody's car. When he stopped by our table, I asked him what was in the boxes.
"Somebody ordered 300 breakfast tacos to go this morning," he told me. Now that's what I call a healthy appetite. The breakfast tacos, which come on homemade tortillas, are generous and inexpensive at two for three bucks apiece. I sampled the bland but satisfying potato-and-egg version which was made with the freshly fried potatoes.
My tablemate got the chilaquiles. In Mexico, chilaquiles are usually corn tortilla scraps cooked with chile sauce and cheese. But at Mi Sombrero, the chilaquiles are scrambled eggs with fresh chiles, tomatoes, onion and tortilla scraps. The menu describes them as Mexican migas. They were extremely piquant, thanks to the big hunks of jalapeños.
On another visit, one of my tablemates ordered the menudo. It was deep brick-red and very spicy, with a good bit of grease floating on the surface. The tripe was very soft, but with a strong offal flavor. This isn't a menudo that I would recommend for novices. My Mexican-American companion got a large bowl with a side order of extra posole. She thought it was pretty good she likes her menudo strong and greasy but she thought it needed more oregano.
The model for early Tex-Mex establishments was The Original Mexican Restaurant of San Antonio which was founded by a Chicagoan named Otis Farnsworth. On a visit to the Alamo City in the 1890s, he noticed well-dressed Anglos waiting in line to eat Mexican food at little outdoor fondas in the Mexican part of town. So he came up with the idea of a fancy restaurant for Anglos staffed by Mexicans. It opened in 1899 and men had to wear a jacket to get in.
An Original Mexican Restaurant menu from the 1940s, which I bought on eBay, appears in my The Tex-Mex Cookbook. Last week, a circa-1920 menu from the restaurant came up for sale on eBay. I bid $15 for the relic — it sold for $65. Luckily, I got to study a photo of it.
The top half of the Original's one-page menu was devoted to the famous "Regular Supper." This Mexican food medley included tamales, chile con carne, enchiladas, frijoles, sopa de arroz (Spanish rice), tortillas de maiz and coffee. On the 1940s menu, the prototypical combination plate sold for 45 cents; on the one from the 1920s, it was priced at a quarter.
The bottom half of both menus lists "Short Orders." I was pleased to find my favorite breakfast, "enchiladas con huevos," listed on the old menu for 15 cents. I knew the dish was a classic, but I didn't realize it was that old.
While some of the other items in the short-order section, like tamales, rice and beans, and chile con carne, fit my preconceptions of early Tex-Mex, I was a little shocked by some of the other stuff.
Cabrito (baby goat), mole poblano, albóndigas con arroz (meatballs and rice), pollo con calabaza (chicken and squash) and guajolote (turkey) in chile sauce aren't the sort of thing I expected. It's interesting that the place that put the combination plate on the map also offered such authentic Mexican fare so long ago.
Some people assume that Tex-Mex is watered down Mexican food for Anglos. The menu of the Original Mexican Restaurant suggests something a little more complicated than that was going on. The Original closed in 1960, after an incredible run of 60 years.
It's also assumed that Mexican-Americans prefer authentic Mexican dishes over Tex-Mex combination plates. But the crowd at Mi Sombrero proves otherwise. Mi Sombrero is a Tex-Mex restaurant for Tejanos, and it's already been in business half as long as The Original.
On a dinner visit to Mi Sombrero, I asked for a small margarita. The waitress was confused. It turns out they only have one size — it's served in a pint beer glass and costs $3.50. I got it frozen with salt. The salt on the rim of the glass was bright blue.
I slurped my cocktail while I munched on chips slathered with sides of chunky guacamole and standard Velveeta-esque chile con queso. The salsa was a nondescript, tomatoey puree with minimal punch.
My favorite dinner item at Mi Sombrero was the Tampiqueña plate. It included two excellent cheese enchiladas, creamy refried beans and half a dozen strips of tender marinated fajita meat served with handmade flour tortillas.
If you think of combination plates as purely Tex-Mex, guess again. The Tampiqueña plate was popularized by a guy named Jose Luis Loredo at a restaurant called the Tampico Club in Mexico City, which opened in 1939. The original version included sliced steak called carne asada along with the enchiladas and beans sprinkled with cheese.
Judging by the quality of the fajita meat, I would venture to bet that the beef fajita plates at Mi Sombrero are excellent as well. Thumbs up on all the enchiladas I tried here too.
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There were quite a few steaks on the menu. I make a pretty decent sirloin guisada at home — I got the recipe from a woman who grew up on a ranch in Mexico — so I couldn't resist trying Mi Sombrero's rib eye guisada, made with chopped rib eye meat cooked with onions and peppers. It sounded wonderful, but there was just too much gristle and fat mixed into the steak stew.
Another dining companion tried a hamburguesa estilo San Isidro, essentially a burger with guacamole. It would have been good if the ground beef had been even passable. But the burger patty was stiff and dry. The handcut French fries that came with it were the best thing on the plate.
Any Texan could take one look at Mi Sombrero's menu and wisely advise you stick to the breakfasts, enchiladas, fajitas and combination plates and avoid the steaks and burgers. And they'd be right on the money.
Go eat breakfast at Mi Sombrero this weekend, and you'll see why this unassuming little family-run Tex-Mex joint is still going strong after 30 years in business. I hope they make it 30 more.