Adis, Los Tonyos

Finally, one of the worst-kept secrets in the local restaurant world is official: Tony Vallone has sold Los Tonyos Cantina. The new restaurant, already risen from the ashes of Los Tonyos in a whirlwind four-day makeover, will be the Austin concept Serrano's Café & Cantina.

"We took over Tuesday morning," says Sandra Schleicher, director of training for Ninfa's Services, the legacy of Mama Ninfa Laurenzo that was bought out of bankruptcy by Serrano's in 1997. The new Serrano's, which opened Friday, March 28, is expected to be the first of several locations in Houston. "We are restructuring to make Serrano's and Ninfa's holding companies into one company that will run the three different concepts," says Schleicher. Besides the remaining 17 Ninfa's in Texas, the group will have ten Serrano's in Austin, three to five more here in Houston and the new Porky's Pit Smokehouse BBQ here on Richmond. The company's headquarters will also be in Houston.

Porky's has been up and running for six weeks, although the grand opening isn't until April 11. The menu reads like a meat eaters' bible: Two-inch-thick pork chops, leg of lamb and prime rib on weekends, and an appetizer of homemade potato chips with crumbled blue cheese and a blue cheese dressing on the side for dipping. "Porky's is Texas Hill Country barbecue, so all three concepts are really Texas food," says Schleicher.

As for Serrano's, the Austin sites have long been known for their barbecue brisket enchiladas with chipotle barbecue sauce, as well as lighter-styled traditional Tex-Mex dishes and even vegetarian offerings, like spinach enchiladas with white wine poblano cream sauce. But the big question remains: Can Serrano's make a go of it at 2815 South Shepherd, where two restaurants have shuttered in as many years?

"Tony [Vallone] is a very, very good friend of mine," says Ninfa's and Serrano's operating partner Jimmy Moreno. "I saw the numbers, and they were doing well. I don't know what Tony's structure is, so I don't know whether it was working for him, but we have stronger purchasing power. We have more restaurants, and the way we're set up our break-even point is lower than others'."

Talk that Los Tonyos wasn't doing well has been swirling for months. A former employee said receipts were down, but Vallone contends that things were going fine and that last month was the best month they ever had. "You can't even get in there on weekends," he says. A spot check last Friday at 8 p.m. found the restaurant less than full and reservations unnecessary. And the crowd, once Vallone's River Oaks set, seemed younger, more Montrosian and sparser.

"It's just not a Tony's crowd there," says one frequent Vallone diner. "When you think of Tony's you think of upscale. I don't think he can go downscale."

But Moreno contradicts the stories of Los Tonyos' flagging business. "He told me he wanted to concentrate on his Italian food," Moreno says of Vallone. "And frankly, we just made him an offer that was too good to refuse."

"It was a very, very good offer," confirms Vallone. "It was a deal made between friends. The restaurant was never even on the market."

Opened last summer in the former home of Tom Williams's Fox Diner, Los Tonyos grew from a concept of Hispanic-men-who-lunched. An informal group of influential businessmen and politicians who met monthly in the wine cellar at Tony's convinced Vallone to experiment with Latin dishes. A portrait-sized photo of the group, who called themselves Los Tonyos, hung in the restaurant on Shepherd.

But the rich and famous weren't regulars at Los Tonyos, and the reviews were never strong, even though the crowds were early on. Robb Walsh wrote that "if the monkeys and Hawaiian shirts aren't particularly evocative of Mexico, that's okay, because neither is the cooking" (see "Where's Chango?" September 5). Others complained that the prices were too high in a town where you can't spit without hitting a Tex-Mex eatery.

"Our prices are going to be much lower," says Schleicher. "We are very affordable, and I think the neighborhood will be happy to see us with the same kind of food but better prices." Schleicher cites the Pollo Loco platter, with three pieces of chicken and three vegetables for $9, as an example. Most Los Tonyos entrées ranged from $10 to $15.

Vallone employees had been speculating on the imminent sale of Los Tonyos for the past four to six weeks, so it likely came as no surprise when the Serrano's folks moved in on March 25.

"We didn't lay anyone off," says Moreno. "There may have been one or two where we said, 'We can't offer you that position, but we can fit you in somewhere else,' and some chose not to stay. Several stayed with Tony and went to other Vallone restaurants."

So, after two months of negotiations, the transfer and opening was swift. Let's just hope the life of the new eatery isn't so quick. After all, neither Fox nor Los Tonyos made the 18-month mark in this location.

And as for Vallone, he's not twice shy on Tex-Mex. "Would I do another Tex-Mex concept?" he asks. "Sure."

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Marene Gustin